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With RSV surge, parents warned of potential virus 'tripledemic'

wendy judd.jpg
Wendy Judd is the new public health nurse for the Barnstable County Department of Health and Environment.

The respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is peaking earlier than usual and straining local hospital resources for more affected infants and children.

The early peak of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases, combined with COVID infections and seasonal flu illnesses, presents what public health officials call a potential "tripledemic" in the weeks ahead of winter.

RSV is common in children younger than 2. But cases have never peaked this early, and are straining hospital capacities throughout Massachusetts. Cape Cod and Nantucket hospitals are reporting influxes of young patients and, at times, are transferring them to available beds elsewhere.

Infants and children are more susceptible to the virus right now because social distancing and mask-wearing protocols during the COVID pandemic have limited their exposure to RSV, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

"I think that's where it becomes a little bit alarming — we know down the road it could get worse," Wendy Judd, the new public health nurse for the Barnstable County Department of Health and Environment, told CAI. "And it's not the only virus out there: We have flu, we have COVID, and we have RSV. So it's a potential tripledemic."

"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," Christopher Lops, a medical doctor who practices with the hospital’s pediatric program, told CAI's Morning Edition. "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."

When to see a pediatrician
Judd says 40 percent of children at Cape Cod Hospital have RSV. Children younger than 6 months are at the greatest risk because of their developing immune systems. Persistent coughing could lead to sinus or ear infections. Dry diapers could indicate dehydration.

There is no antibiotic or vaccine for RSV. Barnstable County will offer flu shots and COVID boosters on December 14 at the Harborview conference room inside the old jail in Barnstable Village. Appointments are required.

Travelers should test for COVID before visiting family and friends, and protect babies from close contact during gatherings, Judd said.

Patrick Flanary is a dad, journalist, and host of Morning Edition.