Multnomah County health officials urge many families to rethink Thanksgiving as RSV infections rise

Multnomah County health officials are recommending that families with children 3 and younger skip Thanksgiving gatherings. They say anyone feeling sick, anyone in frail health and anyone elderly should also consider making other plans to avoid spreading RSV, a respiratory disease.

The current spike is “a high that hasn’t been seen in the 30 years I’ve been a pediatrician,” said Dr. Ann Loeffler, a pediatric infectious disease expert and deputy health officer for the county.

“So unfortunately that means we all have to do our part,” Loeffler said. “In terms of Thanksgiving gatherings, I would just ask every single family in the United States anywhere else where we see a spike in RSV and are at risk of not having the capacity to hospitalize more children.”

Although it is a common childhood illness and usually not dangerous, many children are getting RSV for the first time this year after two years of pandemic restrictions. Now preschoolers with limited immunity to the disease bring the insect home to younger siblings. And babies infected with RSV are at high risk for breathing problems if they get it. Officials believe that’s among the main reasons this year’s RSV season has been so intense and why all of the county’s pediatric intensive care beds are being used.

“Both of our children’s hospitals have announced that they have moved to crisis care standards. That usually means they’re at full capacity,” said Dr. Jennifer Wein, Multnomah County Health Officer. “They’re taking care of the number of patients they’re able to do, and there’s no way to transfer the next patient.”

Given the limited resources available to treat sick children, Vines said it’s a holiday to “keep your kids close.”

OHSU’s Doernbecher Children’s Hospital and Randall Children’s Hospital, both in Portland, announced this week that they will have nurses treat more patients at once in an effort to free up extra beds for young patients in need of intensive care.

The crisis in pediatric beds is making it harder for teens who have mental health crises to get the care they need, OPB reported.

Prevention of RSV

While masks can protect against spread, especially if worn by someone who is actively ill, RSV is primarily spread on surfaces where infection can persist for hours. Washing hands and wiping down surfaces is an excellent way to prevent the spread. In addition, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems should avoid hugging and kissing small children showing signs of illness.

A runny nose is usually the first sign of RSV, followed by a sore throat, fever, lethargy, and a cough that can last for several weeks. Most children, including infants, can be kept at home to manage symptoms. The key is to keep babies’ airways clear by using a suction device, also known as a snot aspirator, to clear their nasal passages. Older children should blow their nose often. Steam showers help loosen mucus in the small nasal passages.

Caregivers should also keep children hydrated. In addition to aiding recovery, it helps keep the mucus thinner. Gatorade and Pedialyte are good options, in addition to water.

If a child is struggling to breathe or is excessively droopy and tired, especially if their nose is clear and there is no fever, they should be brought to the emergency room, no matter how busy they are, Loeffler said. A toddler who is struggling to breathe will not babble or talk as usual and will use their stomach muscles to pump air into their lungs. If their stomach is sucking under their ribs in what’s known as “retraction,” see a doctor.

With the flu on the rise and COVID-19 starting to rise, health officials say continue to pay attention and get vaccinated for everything you can — including whooping cough — to stay healthy and prevent the spread of the disease.

“It’s an evolving situation. So we’ll be watching the capacity of the hospital very carefully,” Vince said. “The trajectory is for a very difficult one for at least a month ahead, and possibly more.”

File photo of turkeys in a refrigerated case at a grocery store in Philadelphia, Monday, Nov. 21, 2022. On Wednesday, public health officials in Multnomah County, Ore., urged people to cancel Thanksgiving dinner plans involving children under 3 years old, older adults and people with immune diseases.

Matt Rourke/AP

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