Pediatric intensive care units in Massachusetts are straining under the weight of a severe outbreak of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). 

The state’s most prominent healthcare provider, MassGeneral Hospital for Children, reported 1,000 RSV cases in the first week of November compared to 2,000 cases in October.

The surge in cases has increased hospital wait times and sent administrators scrambling to ensure kids get the care they need.

Brian Cummings, medical director of the pediatrics department, called the situation an “inpatient bed crisis.” He confirmed that most hospitals in the Boston area are experiencing an influx of patients and are finding ways to deal with the surge despite being over capacity.

The unprecedented surge has also led to Boston Children’s Hospital cutting back on elective surgeries.

What is RSV, and why is this happening now?

RSV, a respiratory infection that disrupts the airways and is often mistaken for the common cold, strikes most children by age five. But studies show that this surge may be a product of the coronavirus pandemic when isolation and masks disrupted the typical spread of viruses.

“Well, over the last two years, our children haven’t been exposed to the common viruses. And now that they’re no longer masking or social distancing, their immune systems are encountering new viruses,” quoted Dr. Alexy Arauz Boudreau, MGH’s associate chief of Pediatrics for Primary Care.

Adults are at high risk too.

According to the Dean of Tufts University School of Medicine, Dr. Helen Boucher, adults can also get RSV and transmit the virus. Although they may show common cold symptoms, infected adults will be contagious for three to eight days. 

Severe RSV infections can lead to pneumonia or bronchiolitis, often requiring hospitalization. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that infants and older adults are at the highest risk for developing these severe infections. 

Parents should look for signs of illness in their children, such as constant fatigue, breathing difficulty, or dehydration. 

CDC recommends the following precautions to help prevent the spread of infection:

  • Covering when coughing and sneezing
  • Washing hands often with soap and water¬†
  • Avoiding close contact with others when you’re sick
  • Frequently cleaning touched surfaces like doorknobs¬†

The Massachusetts Hospital Association is working closely with state and local leaders to address the growing volume of patient demand. Additionally, Massachusetts hospitals are working together to coordinate bed availability and other resources to help caregivers navigate a tremendously challenging time.