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'Wait times are up' | Earlier-than-normal uptick in RSV, flu cases leading to busy hospitals

“We are definitely watching our bed status very closely," Dr. Michael Chang said. "We have space for kids that need intensive care."

HOUSTON — Houston area children’s hospitals are watching the availability of their beds closely as they deal with high levels of flu and RSV cases several weeks and months ahead of the usual flu/RSV season.

Dr. Michael Chang, associate professor of pediatrics at UTHealth McGovern Medical School and pediatric infectious disease specialist with Children’s Memorial Hermann and UTHealth, says he’s seen a usually early surge in flu and RSV cases over the past few weeks.

“Across the region, I know in the urgent cares and the emergency departments and provider offices, wait times are up. Appointments are limited and it’s just really hard to make an appointment,” Chang said.

RSV is a respiratory virus. It can be dangerous in children under 5, especially babies. According to the CDC, about 58,000 children are hospitalized each year with RSV and the virus is responsible for 100 to 300 annual deaths. Warning signs include difficulty breathing and wheezing.

RSV cases typically peak in the winter but this year cases started rising months ahead of schedule.

“Typically, RSV would start after Halloween, closer to Thanksgiving, and then last about 8 to 10 weeks,” Chang said. “We are definitely watching our bed status very closely. We have space for kids that need intensive care, we have beds. We are able to move patients and give patients care that they need, but at the same time, we are closely monitoring the bed capacity.”

The flu season is also off to an unusually early start, which typically peaks between December and February. The Walgreens Flu Index ranks Houston as currently the seventh-highest place for flu activity. Nationwide, flu cases are already 10 times higher than last year’s season.

Emma Williams, a sweet, sassy 5-year-old in Fort Bend County, had an early flu case that caused her to be admitted to the hospital due to a 105.7 fever.

“I don’t even have words to describe it,” Emma's mother, Katie Williams, said. “I mean, at that point, it was just ... how can I take care of her and get this fever down at the moment?”

After a 6-hour wait in the emergency room, Williams said Emma was admitted.

“It was extremely busy. I have never seen anything like it before,” Williams said.

Williams said the nurse told them many of the children were there because of the flu. Emma spent the night for additional testing and to help with dehydration. Now, three weeks later, she’s back to her bubbly self.

The good news is most children will recover from these viruses. But it’s important to seek medical attention if a child is showing symptoms of respiratory distress, dehydration, or a high fever that is unable to be controlled with over-the-counter medicines, Chang said.

The flu shot is one of the best ways to prevent severe illness from influenza. It’s widely available and recommended for most children and adults.

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