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RSV spike in children affecting Cape Cod hospitals

Cape Cod Hospital
Alecia Orsini
File photo of the entrance to Cape Cod Hospital.

'I think it's going to be a while before we figure out why this is happening right now,' pediatrician says.

Massachusetts hospitals, including those on Cape Cod, are reporting a spike in admissions for children diagnosed with the
respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

The RSV infection rate in Massachusetts is more than three times that of last year's, and is straining treatment capacity throughout the state.

Christopher Lops, MD, practices at Cape Cod Hospital as part of its Pediatric Hospitalist program with Boston Children’s Hospital. He spoke with CAI's Patrick Flanary on Morning Edition.

Patrick Flanary: We've been reading that in Boston the treatment centers are so strained that in some cases they're transferring some RSV patients out of state. Some patients are being treated in the hallways. Have you seen anything resembling this at the hospitals on the Cape?

Dr. Christopher Lops: We have. There have been instances where we have children with RSV who have needed to go to a tertiary care center, so somewhere closer to a pediatric ICU. That has proved a little bit challenging, and it's taken a little bit longer to find a bed somewhere in the state, or sometimes we have looked out of state. But fortunately, we've always been able to find beds for them so they can get the appropriate care that they need.

PF: And about how many patients are being treated on the Cape right now, in Hyannis and in Falmouth?

CL: It varies day-to-day. I was in [Hyannis] on Saturday, over the weekend, and we had we only had four [patients] admitted at that time. We have an eight-bed unit at Cape Cod Hospital, and somewhere in the past month we've either been full with patients with RSV, or we've only had a handful like this.

PF: The imagery sounds terrible when you hear about children being treated in a hallway. Would you paint a picture for us about how parents are involved while their children are being treated?

CL: We ask that a parent is always with a child throughout their stay. There's really no specific treatment. It's very supportive care. And so a lot of what we do is we rely on parents to help these children stay hydrated. We tap on children’s backs to sort of help break up some of the mucus in their lungs. And we have parents do that throughout the day. But it's really just being there to comfort their children and make sure they are at least trying to adapt to the hospital environment as best as possible.

PF: And why are we seeing a spike in RSV cases?

Christopher Lops, MD, practices at Cape Cod Hospital as part of its Pediatric Hospitalist program with Boston Children’s Hospital.

CL: That's the million-dollar question, is why? Why are we seeing the spike? And I don't think we have a good answer. And if anyone says they do, I don't know that I believe them.

I think there are a lot of things that have been suggested as possible answers. Some people say there is sort of an immunity debt that has been built up, that during the time of COVID when children were not in schools and daycare centers, they weren't seeing the viruses as frequently as they normally do; and now that they're seeing them again, they're not having a stronger response to them. I don't know that that's true. I have a four-year-old and a two-year-old. And I'll tell you, my kids were sick all throughout last winter as well, and I'm sure they saw RSV then. So I don't know how much I buy into that.

I think maybe there's some truth to that. There are more children now, and certainly we saw a COVID bump in the number of births. And we are seeing a lot of children under the age of two, certainly under the age of one as well, who are being admitted. And so maybe there's just more children and we're seeing it now. And some people have said [that] maybe COVID caused a very strong immune response. And so some people have also postulated that maybe that immune response has sort of dampened our ability to fight off viruses when we see it in close connection to a COVID infection.

I haven't seen anyone who specializes in viruses come out and say, this is exactly why this is happening. I think we just don't know. And I think it's going to be a while before we figure out why this is happening right now.

PF: And there's no vaccine for RSV. So what should parents know about preventative measures, especially this week with all the traveling?

CL: There is no vaccine for RSV and really the best thing you can do is, one, if you are sick or have a sick child, stay home. If you're having a fever, a lot of coughing, difficulty breathing or secretions from the nose, it really just isn't worth it because you're going to get everyone around you sick. Make sure you're washing hands before you're eating and drinking anything. If you're traveling on airplanes or you're going to be in close proximity to people, I still think it's reasonable to wear a mask just to prevent the spread, because that is the one thing we know that will help prevent the spread aside from good hand hygiene: wearing a mask.

Patrick Flanary is a dad, journalist, and host of Morning Edition.
Sam Houghton has been with the station since the summer of 2017. Before that, he worked at the Falmouth Enterprise, where he covered local politics.