Just as doctors and nurses could take a deep breath (literally) from the decline in COVID-19 cases, another “major surge” of two other respiratory illnesses is bringing patients, mostly youngsters, to the ER.

“It’s a Super Bowl,” says Dr. Bridget Wild, lead pediatric hospitalist at Northshore University HealthSystem’s Evanston Hospital.

Not only are ER visits up, says Wild, but “we really are seeing a high number of children who need to be hospitalized,” and not just get treated and sent home to recover.

Admission rates, she notes, are up 60%, still a small minority, but more kids are now requiring oxygen or fluids in a hospital setting.

One big concern is RSV. It stands for Respiratory Syncytial Virus, a common, mostly childhood illness once the winter comes. Usually, it’s like having a cold.

But this year, RSV started earlier. And both the severity and the case numbers are worse.

“The volume,” Wild says, “is unprecedented.”

At its Evanston, Skokie, Glenbrook, and Highland Park hospitals combined, NorthShore says emergency department visits were at a two-year high in October.

Year-to-date (Oct. ’22 vs Oct. ’21) the chain is seeing a 28% increase in emergency visits for children 0-5 years old. The jump is 21% if you include all kids, ages 0-17.

The other local hospital, St. Francis, also reports an increase, although specific numbers are not available.

But why is RSV spiking now?

Wild says kids have just lately started to mingle with other children, at school, at play and at social events. And masks are far less prevalent.

So the surge was expected, after children emerged from “a long period of isolation.”

Kids normally have six-to-eight colds a year. But with no in-person school and far less travel and socializing during the pandemic, “if you went two years without colds it’s normal to encounter virus” once your child is back out in the world, the doctor says.

Plus, the doctor notes, “kids are not just small adults.” There are different RSV symptoms, which are usually worse for children.

In little kids, RSV is a lower respiratory illness. For adults, it’s upper.

The current situation is a perfect storm of getting sick. More and more severe RSV. Regular childhood colds. Allergy season. Even COVID-19 is not completely gone.

Now, throw in something else … the flu.

“We do worry about a significant flu season immediately abutting this RSV surge,” Wild says.

She’s urging everyone to get their flu shots, which can be given to children as young as six months of age.

She’s also asking people to wash their hands frequently, and, if you know a doctor or a nurse, or hospital technician, thank them for their efforts.

“I’m really inspired by the people I work with,” Wild notes.

And the hard work is far from finsished.

Using another sports analogy, the doctor says “We definitely understand that we’re running a marathon, and this is mile 22. We’re tired.”

For more information on RSV causes and symptoms, and on preventing transmission, you can visit cdc.gov/rsv/index.html.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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