By Michael Barsotti

A young mom guardedly watches her infant son cough and seemingly breathe quickly. By early evening, things may be a bit worse, but they certainly are not better. Her son is tired, she is tired, yet she gathers her strength, wraps her son in a warm blanket and heads to the emergency room. The crowded waiting room further heightens her anxiety; she wants her son seen now. A nurse greets her and takes her son’s vital signs, paying close attention to his breathing pattern, then quickly attempts to reassure mom, sharing that it might be a while before they are seen. Then the nurse rushes off to assess then next child. Mom sits down, cradling her son and looks around at a very crowded and busy waiting room. She notices a doctor attending to a child in the corner of the waiting room and patients being treated in hallways. She overhears an exhausted dad asking why it has taken over four hours for his son to be transferred to a bed in the hospital. The answer: The beds are all full, we are waiting for one to open up for you child.

The stories our colleagues here in Spokane and around Washington are sharing are the stuff of a parent’s nightmare. A baby’s heart surgery delayed because there’s no room in the pediatric intensive care unit. Sick young children being cared for in hallways because there’s literally no space in the hospital to admit them. Emergency departments and urgent care clinics are overflowing. Pediatric primary care clinics are overwhelmed. This is the reality for children in Washington and around the country, and it is the result of an unprecedented surge in what some are calling a “tripledemic” of viral respiratory illnesses: influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and COVID-19.

As much as we want families to be able to gather together during the holidays, what we want most is for families to get through this season as healthy as possible, without the need for hospital care. Our health care system is struggling to meet this increasing level of demand.

Please do whatever you can to keep your family healthy as we approach the end of 2022. We urge parents to make sure everyone in their family who is eligible for the influenza and COVID-19 vaccine is up to date. Both of these vaccines protect against serious illness and can help keep your loved ones out of the hospital, including babies ages 6 months and older. Anyone eligible for the new COVID-19 booster should get one.

We also know that the strategies that helped us protect one another during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic will also protect the most vulnerable in our communities (babies and young children, adults over age 65, and those living with a chronic health condition) during this surge in respiratory illnesses. If you are sick or simply not feeling well, we strongly recommend staying home from work or school and wearing a mask in crowded indoor settings.

If you need medical advice or assistance, seek it out, do not wait. Please understand that the emergency rooms are beyond capacity but are committed to see every child that presents. However, patients are triaged by their severity of illness, not on a first come, first served basis. Therefore, absolutely go to the ER if you think your child’s illness requires that level of care, otherwise consider discussing your concerns with your primary care provider.

The respiratory illness surge is upon us but will pass (likely eight to 12 weeks after it began); however, these strategies are essential if we are to manage this tidal wave of illness and reduce the strain on the health care system. We want to be able to provide the best care possible for your children, but we need your help.

Spokane pediatrician Michael Barsotti, MD, FAAP, is president of the Washington Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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