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Maine hospitals see rise in RSV, and it's hitting earlier than expected

Doctors said they are seeing kids with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), as well as bronchulitis, presenting at a higher rate than normal for this time of year.

PORTLAND, Maine — Some Maine hospitals report seeing an increase in kids with respiratory viruses coming earlier than usual this season.

Dr. Mary Ottolini, the chair of pediatrics at Barbara Bush Children's Hospital and chief of the child health service line for MaineHealth, said in years past, doctors see a rise in these viruses around the middle of winter.

This year, medical professionals are seeing that bump now.

"For this time of year, like a 100 percent increase," said Dr. Ottolini. "We are seeing a pretty good number of more severe cases that need to come into the hospital, some that even need to go to the intensive care unit. It's really pushing our staff to work extremely hard to take care of those babies."

"We are seeing more and more of exactly what everyone else is talking about," said Dr. Kathryn Rutledge, M.D., pediatric inpatient physician at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center. "It's at least doubled from what we would expect."

Dr. Ottolini said Maine Medical Center has seen nearly double the number of kids with respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, as well as bronchulitis, this October compared to previous Octobers.

She said RSV presents like a common cold: a cough, runny nose, nasal congestion, and possibly a low-grade fever. 

"That cough may hang on for a week to 10 days or so, but they will get better and if the parent is concerned that the cough is hanging on longer, certainly contact your primary care provider and have them checked out," Dr. Ottolini said. "The majority of children get exposed to RSV in the first two years of life and do fine."

Ottolini stressed that parents who notice these symptoms should call their primary care providers first. She said the emergency department, which is already short-staffed, is dealing with more people coming in for treatment of all kinds of illnesses or injuries.

Some have even used pediatric beds for the overflow of adults.

"We are no longer able to do that. We are at capacity for our beds for our nursing staff most of the time," Rutledge said. "The ED I think has been beyond capacity for some time and working very hard to find a workable solution for things."

"There is no need to go to the emergency department. We don't have anything different, unless your child is sicker, than what your primary care provider has," she explained. "And if they need more than what can be provided by the primary care provider, that's what the Barbara Bush Children's hospital is for, is to provide that extra care: oxygen, IV fluids, sometimes help with breathing."

Ottolini said very young kids are most at risk of severe illness. She said if parents notice their infants or toddlers are working harder to breathe, they should consider bringing them to the emergency department or urgent care.

They are urging parents not to delay care, though.

"I have kids up here now who are here due to a delay in care. If they had been regularly seeking care, they wouldn't be in the hospital right now," Rutledge said. "I get where the families are coming from. I totally understand it. I just want to make sure everybody gets what they need."

She explained that rest, plenty of fluids, and possibly Tylenol for fevers can help most milder cases.

Ottolini also said good hygiene will help prevent the spread of these viruses, and that parents should consider getting their kids a flu shot and a COVID-19 vaccine if they are eligible to reduce their risk of getting those illnesses.

She noted one recent rumor and misconception among parents is that the flu or COVID-19 shots cause RSV. She said that phenomenon is a coincidence, not a cause and effect. 

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