Alaska News

Hospital pediatric units around Alaska are packed as flu, RSV make rounds

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Unusually high rates of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, continue to fill pediatric units in hospitals around Alaska, marking a nasty cold and flu season that still hasn’t reached its peak.

“All the hospitals are full of sick, wheezing kids,” said Dr. Matt Hirschfeld, a pediatrician at Alaska Native Medical Center who sits in on daily, statewide hospital calls focused on pediatric care capacity.

Hirschfeld, who has been working as a doctor in Alaska for 18 years, said that while winter outbreaks of cold, flu and other respiratory illnesses occur annually in the state, “this is much worse than it has been in the past.”

[Crowded ERs in some of Alaska’s hospitals lead to lengthy waits, delayed care]

Dual outbreaks of flu and RSV in particular are causing what Hirschfeld described as “this horrible viral soup” that’s meant that that some hospitals, including Providence Alaska, have had to expand their pediatric units into different areas of the hospital.

“ANMC wants to do that but doesn’t have the nursing staff to do so, so they just put out a call to the Public Health Service to see if they can get some more nurses deployed up here,” Hirschfeld said Friday.

flu

Based on influenza data that is put out weekly by the state, a peak in flu and other respiratory illnesses is still likely at least a few weeks away, Hirschfeld said.

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“The curve is still going up,” he said. “So it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

What is RSV?

A nationwide outbreak of respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV, has overwhelmed pediatric units across the Lower 48 this fall and winter.

Like other respiratory viruses, it infects airway cells, including the lungs, and can cause difficulties in breathing.

It is often most serious for infants and children under 5, older adults, pregnant women and immunocompromised people.

RSV is not a new illness. But pandemic precautions over the last few years kept rates respiratory illnesses low — until now.

Now that those have lifted, many children have little or no immunity and are getting sick at higher rates, and often with more severity.

When should I take my sick baby or kid in to be seen by a doctor?

Although Alaska’s emergency rooms have been particularly full in recent weeks, Alaskans still shouldn’t delay seeking care.

Providence Alaska offers a free, 24-hour nurse advice line that helps people to decide whether to come to the ER — 907-212-6183.

Hirschfeld said there are a few instances where parents should definitely seek care:

• If their sick baby or child develops a fever and is having trouble breathing

• If their sick baby or child goes 6 or 8 hours without being able to drink anything

• If their baby or child is breathing faster than 60 breaths per minute

• Or if their sick baby or child is difficult to wake up

To prevent further illness from spreading and protect each other and hospital capacity, Alaskans should get their COVID-19 booster shot, their flu vaccine, wash their hands, and avoid being around other people when they’re sick, Hirschfeld added.

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Reporter Annie Berman is a full-time reporter for the Anchorage Daily News covering health care and public health. Her position is supported by Report for America, which is working to fill gaps in reporting across America and to place a new generation of journalists in community news organizations around the country. Report for America, funded by both private and public donors, covers up to 50% of a reporter's salary. It's up to Anchorage Daily News to find the other half, through local community donors, benefactors, grants or other fundraising activities.

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Annie Berman

Annie Berman covers health care for the Anchorage Daily News. She's a fellow with Report for America, and is a graduate of the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. A veteran of AmeriCorps and Vista volunteer programs, she's previously reported for Mission Local and KQED in the Bay Area.

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