Hospitals say emergency room cases of RSV have dropped dramatically while COVID-19 precautions are in place

This time of year is notorious for a respiratory virus that can cause serious problems for the youngest of patients: RSV.

But doctors in central North Carolina say the number of cases they're seeing in their emergency rooms has dropped dramatically and in some cases, it's non-existent.

Year after year, Dr. Karen Chilton, WakeMed Children's Chief Medical Officer, has watched as WakeMed Children's Emergency Dept. becomes overrun.

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"Patients kind of back up in the emergency room," she said. "They are admitted to the hospital, but they don't have anywhere to go physically in the hospital. Even the kiddos who don't become so sick that they require a ventilator, still have long stays in the hospital."

There is no cure for RSV, the respiratory virus that can cause severe lung infection in children, especially infants, which prompts those long hospital stays.

Between Nov. 1, 2019 and Jan. 31, 2020, there were 263 RSV patients admitted to WakeMed. So far this season, there's been only one RSV patient admitted, according to hospital staff.

At UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill, staff say there were 220 lab confirmed RSV cases from October 2019 through January 2020. So far this season, there haven't been any.

And at Duke University Hospital, spokesperson Sarah Avery said: "The number of flu and RSV cases this year compared to last is radically down."

Chilton said the same infection prevention measures we're practicing every day of the COVID-19 pandemic -- the mask wearing, hand washing, and physical distancing is likely to thank for the lack of RSV circulating in the community.

"All those things that are working to keep our COVID numbers manageable are also decreasing the amount of RSV that's spread from one child to another," she said.

Chilton said she wants schools to open as quickly and safely as possible and there's a balance to strike in supporting the economy and public health, but she's already looking ahead to next year -- the next RSV season.

"I hate to use the word irresponsible," said Chilton. "But it would be silly of us not to look back on this at some point and say, 'what lessons should we have learned from this and take with us into the future?'"

In the future, Chilton said simple infection control measures like public health campaigns around hand washing, avoiding crowds, even mask wearing could help keep children's emergency rooms from overflowing with RSV patients.
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