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Tuesday Nov. 1, 2022

If you are a parent of a sick child, you probably already know that it’s getting very difficult to reach a pediatrician — any pediatrician. Local doctors are overwhelmed with patients, wait times at urgent cares and emergency departments are long, and even pediatric intensive care units are filling to capacity.

A man in a white coat places a stethoscope on the chest of a girl in a blue shirt.
Credit: Pixabay

Parents struggle to reach medical providers as respiratory illnesses among area children soar

The cause? It’s complicated.

Right now, the Charlottesville area is experiencing a surge in pediatric respiratory illnesses. A lot of it is a common disease known as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Some of it is the flu. And some of it is COVID-19. 

It’s normal for respiratory illnesses to spike in the late fall and winter. But it’s not normal for the cases to come as early or as intensely as they did this year. Healthcare providers believe it is happening because young children are being exposed to these diseases for the first time.

For two years during the pandemic, kids either isolated at home or wore masks at school to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. That mitigation also stopped kids from catching other respiratory diseases. A lot of kids haven’t developed immunity against them.

Teenagers sit at desks in a classroom facing a whiteboard. An adult sits at a desk facing them.
Kids in Charlottesville and Albemarle County continued mostly masking through the end of the last school year. Now, masks are largely gone and respiratory illnesses are spreading rapidly in schools. Credit: Courtney Elhart/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Now the masks are down and those illnesses are back.

The most troubling part about this surge in childhood illnesses is that it has overwhelmed pediatric hospitals. RSV can be severe and dangerous for young kids. Medical centers across the state are struggling to accommodate kids who need intensive care. That means very sick children are being sent hundreds of miles, “if not to a different state,” to find space, said Kellen Squire, an emergency room nurse at Martha Sentara Jefferson Hospital.

This is happening in other communities, too. About 75% of pediatric hospital beds in the United States are full, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. You can read more about the national issue and response from NBC here and from The Washington Post here.

This all signals the potential for a rough winter. Traditionally, cold and flu season peaks in December, so it’s possible that illness rates will just keep going up.

But there is some hope on the horizon. Pfizer is testing an RSV vaccine that could protect young kids from severe disease and make next year’s cold and flu season a little less intense. New York Times subscribers can read more about that effort here.

In the meantime, doctors urge everyone to get their COVID-19 vaccines and boosters and their flu shot.

Thank you for reading,

Jessie Higgins, managing editor

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Jessie Higgins

I'm Charlottesville Tomorrow's managing editor and health and safety reporter. If there’s something you think we should be investigating, please email me at jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org! And you can follow all the work we do by subscribing to our free newsletter! Hablo español, y quiero mantener a la comunidad hispanohablante informada. Si tienes preguntas o información que debo saber, por favor, envíame un correo electrónico a jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org.