An increasing number of children are showing up at Sonoma County hospitals with a respiratory virus that is particularly dangerous to those under age 2, causing concern among local doctors.
Providence Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital reports that 222 young children had complaints from suffering respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and other respiratory viruses, from Oct. 15 through Oct. 31, compared with 59 during the same period last year, according to a spokesperson.
At Sonoma Valley Hospital in Sonoma, four children from 11 months to 3 years old have been hospitalized in the past two months, compared to two all of last year.
Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said that because there is no requirement that hospitals report cases of RSV, she could not estimate the number of cases the county has seen so far.
Dr. Gary Green, a local infectious disease expert who works at Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, says he has noticed that the county is seeing an unusually large number of RSV cases — though few hospitalizations — especially considering the time of year. RSV season usually lasts from 18 to 21 weeks, from fall to spring, and typically peaks in late December.
At the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, some 34% percent of the tests for RSV are turning up positive, Green said.
“This is an extraordinarily high amount, especially this early in the season,” he said. “This is about twice as much as usual, but the public is kind of sleeping on this right now.”
RSV typically causes mild, cold-like symptoms. It is most dangerous among children and adults ages 65 and older with chronic health conditions or weakened immune systems.
This year, however, it is particularly prevalent among young children, causing pediatric hospitals on the East Coast to quickly fill to capacity.
At Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford, more than 100 children with RSV showed up over a recent 10-day period, including many who required intensive care and oxygen therapy.
“I’ve been at Connecticut Children’s for 25 years, and I have never seen this level of surge — specifically of RSV — coming into our hospital,” Dr. Juan Salazar, executive vice president and physician-in-chief at the told CNN.
Green said several factors could account for this rise on the East Coast, including cold and rainy weather, children returning to schools as well as people spending more time indoors and being less proactive about masking and other preventive measures.
Discovered in 1956, RSV is one of the most common causes of childhood illness. Almost everyone contracts RSV by the age of 2, but older children and adults tend to have milder cases because prior infection creates helpful immune system response.
“Because they have smaller airways, RSV is more dangerous to infants — especially premature infants, those younger than 2 months of age and those with certain chronic pulmonary conditions,” said Dr. Jerome Smith, a pediatrician at SVH, adding that not all infants who contract the virus have serious cases.
The virus — like influenza, COVID-19 and common colds — is spread through contact with droplets from the nose and throat of infected people when they cough and sneeze.
Infections start with a runny nose and advances to thick nasal secretions. This occasionally can then cause tightness in the smaller branches of the lungs, with wheezing and even respiratory distress.
“Symptoms also include decreased appetite, coughing, sneezing and fevers,” Mase said. “These symptoms usually occur in stages, not all at once. In very young infants with RSV, the only symptoms may be irritability, decreased activity and breathing difficulties.”
Incubation takes from two to eight days, and once an infection occurs, the ability to infect others typically lasts from three to eight days, though it can be longer. Most infections go away in one or two weeks.
Smith advises anyone with labored breathing or respiratory distress to be evaluated, adding that in severe cases, oxygen and other supportive treatments and monitoring can be provided at a hospital.
Most hospital emergency rooms and many physician offices can test for RSV, which takes as little as 10 minutes, similar to rapid COVID and rapid flu tests.
Smith says that those who contract the virus should stay at home to recover.
“Like any respiratory illness, keeping well-hydrated and using measures to keep nasal passages clear can help loosen mucus and make it easier to breathe,” he said.
These measures include using saline drops and sprays with bulb suction for younger children and cool mist humidifiers and short periods in a steamy bathroom for others. Smith advises people to also watch for signs of more serious respiratory distress, which could require emergency room care.
Safeguards to prevent contracting RSV include frequent hand-washing and masking around others who are coughing.
“There is currently no vaccine for RSV and there are no RSV-specific treatments, but prevention and limiting spread — especially to high-risk infants, seniors and the immunocompromised — is something everyone can do,” Smith said.
Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at [email protected].