With winter comes a higher risk for contracting respiratory illnesses like the flu, RSV or COVID-19. Credit: Evan Girard

Most annual flu seasons also see a mild surge in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a common infection that causes a normal cold and mainly affects infants and young children.

But this fall, surges in both flu and RSV among kids have strained the hospital system across both the state and the nation. As of Monday, just 5% of Illinois’ pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) beds were available. During the worst waves of COVID-19 over the past several years, about half of all PICU beds still remained available, according to Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Sameer Vohra.

RSV cases were few and far between during the 2020 and 2021 fall seasons thanks to COVID-19 protocols, widespread mask-wearing and school closures. This year, though, schools around Illinois started seeing kids get sick with the virus almost immediately after opening in September.

“We see cases of RSV and flu every winter, but this year’s surge was earlier and more intense,” said Dr. Michael Slater, an emergency department physician at Ascension Saint Francis Hospital in Evanston.

“Cases of flu are up much higher, much earlier than in any recent season,” Slater said. “With more people coming in with the flu, RSV, COVID and other infections needing hospitalization, it’s more important than ever to take the necessary steps to prevent respiratory illness.”

At an IDPH press conference held at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago earlier this month, Vohra also added that the lack of available hospital beds has forced kids with other illnesses to wait for care or travel long distances to the nearest hospital with an opening. Plus, a nationwide shortage of health care workers has worsened the ability of hospitals to handle the RSV and flu surges in Illinois, he said.

Locally around Evanston, the health care system is facing very similar circumstances. Last month, NorthShore University HealthSystem saw its highest overall number of October emergency department visits in two years.

That uptick was fueled by a 28% year-over-year increase in emergency visits for the month of October specifically for kids 5 and under, according to Dr. Ernie Wang, chief of emergency medicine for NorthShore.

Evanston Health and Human Services Director Ike Ogbo did not respond to questions from the RoundTable about local cases and hospitalizations and what the city is doing to prevent a continued surge.

Meanwhile, District 65 Executive Director of Communications Melissa Messinger said the schools have seen an increase in sickness-related absences among students.

“While we have had a handful of reported cases of RSV, many parents/caregivers do not provide a confirmed diagnosis when reporting their child’s absence due to illness,” Messinger said in an email. “Overall we are not seeing anything overly alarming at this time.”

Symptoms and prevention

Nearly all children will experience a case of RSV by the time they turn 2, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The majority of cases are mild, with symptoms typically occurring between four and six days after infection.

The CDC lists possible symptoms a child could develop, including runny nose, decreased appetite, coughing, sneezing, fever and wheezing.

“Those who are younger than 2 years of age and older than 65 or anyone with chronic medical conditions should be particularly careful and get tested if they show symptoms, such as fever, congestion and coughing,” Slater said. “Emergency departments throughout Chicagoland are busier than usual, so it’s best to start with your primary care physician, if you can.”

In the meantime, the best prevention methods to follow involve the same practices to stay safe from a COVID-19 infection. Here is a summary of recommendations from Slater, the CDC, IDPH and other health officials:

  • Vaccines: Get your flu shot and COVID-19 booster as soon as possible. Kids over 6 months can get the flu vaccine, while children 5 and older are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccines and boosters.
  • Practice basic hygiene: Make sure to wash your hands regularly, clean surfaces around your home and cover up sneezes and coughs.
  • Masking: Just like with COVID-19, a well-fitting surgical mask or N95 can keep you from spreading illness to others or becoming infected by the people around you.
  • Stay home if you have symptoms: Call your primary care doctor if you or your child gets sick, and stay home while sick so you don’t spread the virus.

Ultimately, most cases pass without incident within a week or so.

“The best thing that we can do here is to prevent illness and use all the tools that we have available to prevent the spread of disease,” Vohra said. “This includes appropriate handwashing, staying home when sick, vaccinations and masking when comfortable and appropriate.”

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

Leave a comment

The RoundTable will try to post comments within a few hours, but there may be a longer delay at times. Comments containing mean-spirited, libelous or ad hominem attacks will not be posted. Your full name and email is required. We do not post anonymous comments. Your e-mail will not be posted.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *