'We have never done this': UNC opens 'Pediatric Surge Unit' to deal with respiratory virus patients

Michael Perchick Image
Friday, November 18, 2022
UNC opens Pediatric Surge Unit' to deal with respiratory illnesses
UNC Hospitals has created a pediatric surge unit for the first time as it continues to see an influx of patients with respiratory viruses.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- UNC Hospitals has created a pediatric surge unit for the first time as it continues to see an influx of patients with respiratory viruses.

"As soon as we opened them up, they filled," said Dr. Stephanie Davis, Physician-in-Chief at UNC Children's.

A team from UNC Hospitals and UNC Children's converted six beds on the hospital's sixth floor to accommodate young patients, with Davis noting they have the ability to add to that if necessary.

"The viral surge has been truly remarkable, and we've seen it across the country. The other thing is the regionalization of pediatric care. There have been closures of pediatric floors at community-based hospitals," said Davis.

Davis shared symptoms that parents should watch out for when deciding whether they should seek care at the hospital for their children.

"Trouble breathing. So if your child is breathing fast. If your child is having retractions, which is defined as pulling your chest in If your child looks like they have any kind of blue lips, you definitely want to bring them in to be evaluated. The other thing is in very young infants with RSV, they can sometimes apnea, which are short pauses in breathing. Certainly, if you see that, you want to bring your child in if that occurs," Davis said. "And finally, if your child isn't eating or drinking, so you may see an infant (having a) decrease in the number of wet diapers, you're going to also want to bring them in because dehydration can be associated with these viruses as well."

The decision to create a pediatric surge unit is an escalation of growing case counts.

"Over the last two months, we've had to deny many transfers into UNC Children's, and due to those denials, and the fact that we had significant boarding of children in our emergency rooms, we elected to go ahead and move forward with those surge units this week," said Davis.

She mentioned they are in close contact with other hospitals across the state, including WakeMed and Duke, which are experiencing similar situations. Last week, we shared the story of 14-month-old Amelia Culp, who has spinal muscular atrophy and spent 33 days hospitalized with rhinovirus before being discharged.

"It was super hard to sit there and watch her lay there. I care for her 24/7, and being on ventilator, any time they did anything they had to call respiratory (staff) in there because you have to be super, super careful," said her mother, Megan.

As temperatures drop and holiday travel is set to begin in the coming days, doctors are bracing for potentially more patients in the coming weeks.

"A lot of the children will be around a lot of family, and that can then set you up for getting viruses. And in pediatrics going into the winter season, we often see a number of viruses affecting children," said Davis.

The pediatric surge unit is expected to be operating for six weeks, though that could change based on metrics.

Despite the existing challenges, there are some positive signs in the state regarding respiratory viruses. While the Southeast continues to be hit hardest by respiratory viruses, the levels decreased slightly in North Carolina. NCDHHS reported the percent of emergency department visits for flu-like illnesses dropped this past week, the first decrease since late August, though it is still far above levels during the past couple years. Furthermore, Davis noted that they may have hit the peak of RSV cases, which began unusually early this year.