RSV often causes mild, cold-like symptoms in older children and adults, but can lead to serious breathing issues for infants


Dr. Nadia Asif has seen a few babies and toddlers arrive at Saint Vincent Hospital in recent weeks with the telltale belly breathing of a respiratory syncytial virus infection.

RSV often causes mild, cold-like symptoms in older children and adults, but can lead to serious breathing issues for infants.

"If you can see the child's ribs moving in and out when they breathe, or they are breathing hard or fast, or they are tired and aren't eating or drinking, that's when you should bring them to the emergency department," said Asif, a pediatric hospitalist at Saint Vincent.

Erie County is seeing a surge in young children with RSV, though the numbers aren't near the record levels from 2022.

Erie County Department of Health officials have reported 148 RSV cases since the official start of the 2023-24 season on Oct. 1. Of those cases, 99 were reported between Nov. 1-10, the most recent dates available.

By comparison, the County Health Department reported 977 RSV cases in October 2022 and 990 in November 2022.

"Last year was more of an anomaly," said Colleen Wallace, R.N., the County Health Department's communicable diseases nursing supervisor. "It was a very early and very active RSV season."

This year's RSV numbers are more similar to those reported in 2021, which had 328 cases in October and 229 in November.

Fewer face masks, more triple swabbing might have spiked 2022 RSV cases

Why was there an RSV surge in 2022 and might we still see one this season? Wallace said one reason for last year's surge is the availability of triple swabbing for RSV, COVID-19 and flu. Positive RSV cases, like those for COVID-19 and flu, were reported.

"In 2022, we were doing a lot of triple swabbing," said Dr. Kylie Morris, a family medicine physician with UPMC Hamot's West Erie Medical Group. "We're still doing that testing but as we get farther away from the COVID pandemic, more people test at home if they don't feel well, or don't test at all. ... Those cases aren't reported."

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Morris added that her office is seeing about as many RSV cases as it did last fall.

Wallace said another reason for the 2022 spike could have been that many people no longer wore face masks while out in public.

"Those masks not only reduced our risk of COVID, but other respiratory illnesses like RSV," Wallace said.

RSV vaccine available for seniors, babies

RSV season typically runs in the fall and early winter, though Morris and Asif did not rule out a mid-winter surge in cases.

One difference this season is the availability of an RSV vaccine. It's recommended for people 60 and older, especially those with chronic lung problems like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and those with weakened immune systems.

A new, long-acting monoclonal antibody is also available for infants, though supplies have been limited. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention recently released 77,000 extra doses of nirsevimab and parents should contact their child's doctor for availability.

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"It's also recommended that pregnant women get a dose of RSV vaccine between 32 and 36 weeks (gestation)," Wallace said.

Besides getting vaccinated, people can reduce their risk of getting and spreading RSV by following a few familiar guidelines.

"If you have any type of cold, it's just common sense to stay away from newborns or the elderly," Morris said.

"Consider wearing a mask if you don't feel well," Wallace said. "And if you need to sneeze, do a Dracula sneeze by using your elbow."

Contact David Bruce at [email protected]. Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, @ETNBruce.

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