Oregon’s governor declares RSV in children a public health emergency

Josephine “JoJo” Schmidt, 2, washes her hands after receiving her COVID-19 vaccine. Frequent hand washing, keeping up on vaccinations, and avoiding people who are sick are all ways to prevent the spread of RSV. (OHSU/Christine Torres Hicks)

Oregon Governor Kate Brown on Monday issued an executive order under ORS Chapter 401 to support hospitals in response to an increase in pediatric cases of respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.

The governor declared a public health emergency because “the statewide pediatric hospitalization rate has more than tripled and is likely to soon exceed the previously recorded weekly hospitalization rate,” according to the governor’s office.

With the changes in weather and the return to school and other indoor activities, fall is a predictable time when more children have viral respiratory illnesses. While these illnesses don’t usually lead to hospitalization, this year more of these infections have resulted in a higher number of children requiring admission to Oregon Health & Science University and hospitals in Oregon and across the country.

Dr. Dana A. Branner (OHSU) sits next to a Child Life Specialist's pet dog named Davis.

Dana A. Branner, PhD (OHSU)

“Like other hospitals in the region and across the country, OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital is currently seeing a high volume of sick patients. Diseases have hit our communities hard – and this comes on top of extreme health staffing challenges that have been exacerbated by the pandemic,” said Dana A. Branner, Ph.D, chief medical officer at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. “We expect this spike in illnesses to continue in the coming months. The dedicated staff here at Doernbecher is incredible and will continue to provide quality, compassionate care for our patients.”

The governor’s executive action aims to help provide pediatric clinicians and staff with the tools they need to care for sick children. The governor’s office says, “The executive order will give hospitals additional flexibility for staffed beds for children, allow them to use a pool of volunteer nurses and doctors, and take other steps to provide care for pediatric patients.”

Judy Guzman-Cottrill, DO

Judy Guzman-Cottrill, DO (OHSU)

During the pandemic lockdown, babies and young children were protected from common diseases, he says Judith A. Guzman-Cottrill, DO, professor of pediatrics (infectious diseases) at the OHSU School of Medicine. The now relaxed restrictions, combined with the return to school and indoor activities and gatherings, means that children’s immune systems may not be as prepared to fight off these viruses.

“Caring for a sick child can be worrying, and we want to reassure parents that RSV is a common childhood virus. Most cases can be treated at home, but those children who require hospitalization can receive supportive care and make a full recovery,” Guzman-Cottrill said. “The best thing parents can do is continue to practice the good health and hygiene habits we’ve learned over the past few years, including avoiding contact with anyone who is sick, washing hands frequently and keeping all vaccinations up to date.”

Although most cases of RSV are mild and clear up at home within a few weeks, OHSU clinicians stress the importance of understanding RSV, its symptoms and treatments, and how to stay safe and healthy this fall.

Questions and Answers

What is RSV?

Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms. RSV is common, and almost all children will have had an RSV infection by age 2.

Who is at risk?

While anyone can be infected with RSV, those at greatest risk of severe illness from RSV include young infants, especially those 6 months and younger, and children younger than 2 who have chronic illnesses or weakened immune systems.

What are the symptoms?

People infected with RSV usually show symptoms within four to six days of being infected. Symptoms of RSV infection usually include a runny nose, decreased appetite, cough, sneezing, fever, or wheezing. Serious symptoms that may indicate the need for emergency care may include trouble breathing, trouble eating due to rapid breathing, wheezing, severe dehydration, or lethargy. A useful example of the effects of RSV on a child’s breathing can be found here.

What should I do if I think my child is infected?

Most RSV infections clear up on their own within a week or two and can be managed with proper nutrition, hydration, sleep, and the use of over-the-counter fever reducers and pain relievers. Babies may need frequent suctioning of nasal secretions. However, some cases may require hospitalization or more specialized care. Parents can use the Doernbecher Symptom Tracker app to learn more about their child’s symptoms and are always encouraged to call their healthcare provider for guidance if their child is showing serious symptoms.

How can I keep my child safe and healthy?

The best thing parents can do to keep their children healthy and safe is to implement all the measures emphasized during the pandemic: avoid contact with sick people, wash your hands often, clean and disinfect surfaces and stay current on all routine vaccinations, including flu shots and COVID-19 boosters. It is also helpful to limit exposure of babies to frequent visitors and crowds, especially if they are at risk of serious illness and/or are less than 12 weeks old.

What does a public health emergency mean for my family?

Governor Brown has declared a public health emergency because “the statewide pediatric hospitalization rate has more than tripled and is likely to soon exceed the previously recorded weekly hospitalization rate,” according to the governor’s office.

Due to the large number of sick children who require emergency services, families may unfortunately experience long wait times at the OHSU Doernbecher Emergency Department. Appointments for non-urgent pediatric care may also take longer.

OHSU asks that, except in an emergency, families call their care provider before coming to the emergency room.

OHSU thanks families for their patience as we continue to work with the state and other hospitals and health systems around Oregon to address these challenges and help ensure children have access to the care they need.

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