Whatcom residents, specifically children, are being seen in emergency rooms for respiratory illnesses at the highest rate the Whatcom County Health Department has ever seen.

Respiratory syncytial virus infections, or RSV; influenza also known as the flu; COVID-19 and other health needs are hitting at the same time. Whatcom children are being hospitalized at a rate that is four times higher than have been seen in at least the last five years, according to a news release from the Whatcom County Health Department, Tuesday, Nov. 22.

“Hospitals across Washington are currently at or beyond pediatric bed capacity. We’re also hearing about shortages of several prescription and over-the-counter drugs for children,” said Dr. Greg Thompson, co-health officer of the Whatcom County Health Department in a video posted to YouTube.

St. Joseph hospital in Bellingham is managing to meet the current pediatric needs, “but we are working very closely with our healthcare partners around the state to identify open pediatric beds. Unfortunately, this is a statewide – even nationwide – crisis,” Beverly Mayhew, senior director of marketing and communications for the PeaceHealth Northwest network, said in an email to The Bellingham Herald.

Pharmacies are having trouble staying fully stocked on things like Tylenol, ibuprofen and other basic fever medications for children. Pharmacies may ask people to limit the amount of medication purchased, the county health department said. There is also a nationwide shortage of liquid antibiotic amoxicillin so pharmacies are likely to prescribe alternatives.

“Not all fevers in children need to be treated with medications. A mild fever is part of the normal response to an infection, and we treat these mostly for comfort, not because treating fevers helps children get better faster,” the county health department said in the release.

St. Joseph hospital is asking people to consider other health options to assist with medical care unless it is an emergency. This will save hospital resources and time, allowing healthcare professionals to deal with the high number of emergency cases.

“Please know that we treat everyone who visits our Emergency Department, but those with non-emergency needs will most likely have a longer wait time before we are able to care for you,” said PeaceHealth Northwest Regional Chief Medical Officer Dr. Sudhakar Karlapudi in a news release from PeaceHealth, Monday, Nov. 21.

Flu cases are rising quickly in Washington state and nationwide, according to Washington State Department of Health news release Tuesday.

“Flu hospitalizations are at the highest rates seen in 10 years for this point in the year,” according to the release.

Flu illness can have serious health consequences, especially for people who are under five years old, age 65 or older, pregnant, immunocompromised, or have chronic health conditions. The flu vaccine is available at most pharmacies, health care providers’ offices, and clinics.

Schools across the county are stressing that families keep kids home if they are feeling sick. Most children with RSV do well with the infection at home with supportive care, the county health department said.

Mayhew said Dr. Mara Kelley, medical director at St. Joseph’s pediatric hospitalist program, advises parents who believe their child has RSV to manage the illness at home by clearing congestion (with a nasal aspirator and saline), keeping the child hydrated, relieving pain and fever (acetaminophen in children over 2 months and ibuprofen in children over 6 months), and avoiding the use of cough medicines.

“If your child’s fever lasts for more than five days, or you are concerned that your child is dehydrated, or is increasing work to breathe, you should contact your child’s provider,” according to Kelley.

The skills learned during the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent the spread of the virus will be useful during this virus season, according to the county health department. This includes wearing a mask, staying home if sick, washing hands and surfaces, avoiding close contact with people and getting vaccinated against whooping cough, flu and COVID-19.

This story was originally published November 22, 2022 12:11 PM.

Jack Belcher joined the Herald in September 2022 as the climate change reporter. He graduated Central Washington University with a degree in digital journalism in 2020 and worked as a staff writer for the Ellensburg Daily Record for three years.

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