Pediatric hospital officials from across the state issued urgent pleas to families on Monday as emergency rooms, particularly in Western Washington, have become strained beyond capacity with young patients suffering respiratory infections.
Respiratory Syncytial Virus infection, or RSV, is making an earlier than usual appearance this year, along with flu, taking a toll on children and young patients statewide. The surge follows years of COVID isolation, low RSV infection rates and strict masking in public settings.
As a result, the virus is spreading faster amid more vulnerability and less herd immunity, officials said Monday at a Washington State Hospital Association briefing. The surge is overwhelming pediatric offices, urgent care centers and ERs.
For the pediatric medical community, "This is our COVID," said Ben Whitworth, chief operating officer for Tacoma-based Mary Bridge Children's Hospital and Health Network. "This should be on the front page of everybody's mind," he said, as the hospital faces an "unprecedented surge and patient volumes."
Dr. Mary Alice King, medical director of Harborview's pediatric ICU, and other officials said everyone needs to focus on preventive measures to help ease the medical strain, including staying home when sick, emphasis on good hygiene and plenty of hand washing, along with getting vaccinated against COVID and flu.
"I think right now we need a major PR campaign because I don't think folks get this," King said. "I think people are so tired from COVID and they don't understand the urgency of what we're talking about.
"We need to flatten this RSV curve and we need to think proactively about flattening the influenza curve."
Officials rattled off grim percentages of overflowing emergency rooms and families seemingly shocked at patient wait times at hospitals.
At Mary Bridge on Monday morning, Whitworth said, there were 23 patients in the waiting room. "We have children in our waiting room that have been waiting since 10 o'clock last night, so greater than 12 hours."
He noted that more than 60 percent of its emergency department visits and about 80 percent of its hospital admissions are respiratory related.
The picture wasn't much better elsewhere, as few available beds along with staffing shortages make the RSV surge worse. Budgets for and availability of travel nurses have dwindled, officials noted, as hospitals nationwide still compete for travelers.
Incentive pay is being offered to existing staff to help cover shifts.
"We are in crisis mode ... bordering if not already in disaster mode in our emergency departments across the state," said Dr. Tony Woodward, medical director of Emergency Medicine at Seattle Children's Hospital.
During Monday's news briefing with reporters, Woodward noted that his hospital was "at 200 percent capacity at this time of the day, which is almost unheard of."
"We're terrified that we won't be able to take care of all the kids," said King, who also represented the Washington Medical Coordination Center for pediatrics in Monday's briefing.
Dr. Mike Barsotti, chief administrative officer for Providence Sacred Heart Children's Hospital in Spokane, said that it was only a matter of time before the state's east side saw the same level of cases.
"We are definitely in a surge that we are just building to the level that's being described on the west side. ... We're not going to get away from it," Barsotti said.
Washington's low patient bed count, which drew attention during the COVID surges of years past, is in the spotlight again with even fewer pediatric beds available.
"We only have about 500 pediatric beds in Washington state," King said. "And of those, only 122 are pediatric ICU beds."
Child behavioral health cases also are adding to the demand of area emergency departments, as patients go to the ER "unable to access those services in the community," said WSHA executive vice president Taya Briley.
The number of RSV patient admissions alone has been more than double in some weekly tallies at Mary Bridge this fall compared with previous years.
In figures provided Monday from MultiCare media representative Scott Thompson, At Mary Bridge "early 2020 (January/February) we had weeks where we had close to 20 RSV admissions. Jump forward to fall 2021/early 2022, we had weeks with more than 20 RSV admissions.
"Now, fall of 2022 (September/October) we've had a couple of weeks with close to 50 RSV admissions."