BILLINGS — A spike in the number of cases of an upper respiratory virus that can prove deadly for some infants is putting the pediatric unit at Billings Clinic at near capacity.
Cases of RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, were being reported as early as July in Montana, months earlier than when the virus usually peaks in the winter months.
The scare of RSV hit Billings mom Tiffany Edelman hard when her 19-month-old son Michael contracted the virus: "He wasn't sleeping, he wasn't eating or drinking," she said.
Edelman said her persistence paid off after doctors finally agreed to test Michael for RSV, and his tests came back positive.
“Everyone's like, 'It's just like a cold,' but in a young toddler, it's scary," she said.
In June the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a health advisory for clinicians and caregivers to be on the lookout for the RSV and encouraged broader testing for young children and older adults as symptoms can look like some COVID-19 symptoms.
In April 2020, RSV activity decreased rapidly, likely due to the adoption of public health measures to reduce the spread of COVID, according to the CDC.
“We expect really soon that it to be the more predominant virus we are seeing,” said Billings Clinic Pediatric Pulmonologist Dr. Jerry Lysinger.
As of November 15, Lysinger said 90 percent of the inpatient Billings Clinic pediatric population was RSV cases, but that at any given time that number was fluctuating anywhere from 50 to 75 percent all week.
Lysinger said currently the hospital is in a contingency planning stage to determine where to place sick infants when those numbers increase.
“Unfortunately, because of COVID-19, our hospitals are packed to the gills with sick adults,” he said. “And so it's really difficult coming up with a contingency plan for what to do with these sick infants and children.”
RSV is primarily spread through respiratory droplets when a person coughs or sneezes, and through direct contact with a contaminated surface.
So what symptoms should parents be looking for if they suspect a child has RSV? Lysinger says it can sometimes be tricky because COVID symptoms are similar to a lot of other sicknesses right now.
“Significant coughing, significant runny nose, significant wheezing, and rattling of the chest,” he said. “It's safe to say it kind of gets worse for three to four days and stays the same for three to four days and then it goes away for three or four days.”
He says parents should also bring their children in for a fever spike. While he said there have been children hospitalized for RSV recently, he’s reporting no deaths so far due to the virus.
But he says the virus can be deadly to at-risk infants.
“I would say for high-risk infants, so preterm infants or other infants who have chronic lung diseases that RSV might be more of a threat,” he said.
As for Edelman, she has a message for parents too: trust your instincts.
"I cried a lot out of just tiredness and watching him, feeling guilty that I couldn't do anything for him," she said. "He's fine, but I never expected it to be that bad.”