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Oregon governor declares RSV in children a public health emergency

OHSU Doernbecher, other hospitals in the region seeing a high number of sick children amid health care staffing challenges
a toddler with blond pigtails, being held up by a person in black, washes their hands in a sink.
Josephine "JoJo" Schmidt, 2, washes her hands after receiving her COVID-19 vaccine. Frequent hand washing, staying up to date on vaccines, and avoiding people who are sick are all ways to help prevent the spread of RSV. (OHSU/Christine Torres Hicks)

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on Monday issued an executive order under ORS Chapter 401 to support hospitals responding to the 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 exceed its previously recorded weekly hospitalization rate imminently,” according to the governor’s office.

With changes in weather and the return to school and other indoor activities, fall is predictably a time when more children have viral respiratory illnesses. While these illnesses generally do not result in 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.

Dana A. Braner M.D. (OHSU) sits next to a Child Life specialist comfort pet, a dog named Davis.
Dana A. Braner, M.D. (OHSU)

“Like other hospitals in the region and across the country, OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital is currently admitting a high number of sick patients. Illnesses have hit our communities hard — and this comes on top of extreme health care staffing challenges which were exacerbated by the pandemic,” said Dana A. Braner, M.D., physician-in-chief at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. “We expect this spike in illness to continue in the coming months. The dedicated staff here at Doernbecher are incredible, and they will continue to provide quality, compassionate care for our patients.”

The governor’s executive action is intended to help provide pediatric clinicians and staff the tools they need to care for sick children. The governor’s office says: “The executive order will give hospitals additional flexibility to staff beds for children, allow them to draw on a pool of medical volunteer nurses and physicians, and take other steps to provide care to pediatric patients.”  

Judy Guzman-Cottrill, D.O.
Judy Guzman-Cottrill, D.O. (OHSU)

During the pandemic lockdowns, babies and young children were protected from common illnesses, says Judith A. Guzman-Cottrill, D.O., professor of pediatrics (infectious diseases) in the OHSU School of Medicine. Now, eased restrictions, combined with the return to school and indoor activities and gatherings, mean children’s immune systems may not be as prepared to fight these viruses.

“Caring for a sick child can be distressing, and we want to assure parents that RSV is a common childhood virus. Most cases can be treated at home, but those children who do require hospitalization can receive supportive care and fully recover,” 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 several years, including avoiding contact with anyone who is sick, frequent handwashing and staying up to date on all vaccines.”

While most cases of RSV are mild and resolve at home within a few weeks, OHSU clinicians emphasize 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 for severe illness from RSV include young infants, especially those 6 months and younger, and children younger than 2 who have chronic conditions or weakened immune systems.

What are the symptoms?

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

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

Most RSV infections go away on their own in a week or two and can be managed with proper feeding, hydration, sleep and use of over-the-counter fever reducers and pain relievers. Infants might need frequent suctioning of nasal secretions. Some cases, however, 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 health care provider for guidance if their child is exhibiting any 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 practice all the measures that were emphasized during the pandemic: avoid contact with those who are sick, wash hands frequently, clean and disinfect surfaces and stay up to date on all routine vaccinations, including flu shots and COVID-19 boosters. It’s also helpful to limit infants’ exposure to frequent visitors and crowds, especially if they are at risk for severe illness and/or younger than 12 weeks of age.

What does a public health emergency mean for my family?

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

Because of the high volume of sick children requiring emergency services, families unfortunately may experience long wait times in the OHSU Doernbecher emergency department. Appointments for non-urgent pediatric care also may take longer.  

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

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

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