Winter virus RSV soars: Surgeries postponed, playrooms converted, terrified parents

Hospitals across the country are postponing surgeries and creating extra bed space for children as they deal with a sharp surge of a highly contagious winter virus.

Children, babies in particular, are being hit particularly hard by respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) this year with many ending up in Intensive Care Units or needing oxygen to help them breathe.

Some parents have described calling for an ambulance after their child’s temperature spiked to dangerous levels or as they struggled to breathe as a result of the virus.

ESR (Institute of Environmental Science and Research) data shows weekly visits to our six main hospitals for RSV has more than doubled in the last week, from 204 to 538 presentations. Only 34 cases were recorded between April to September last year.

As the virus spreads many daycare centres have started to also report large numbers of sick children, with some saying their classrooms are half empty.

DHBs are now doing everything they can to cater for the spike, including postponing surgeries, creating extra beds and restricting visitors.

At Middlemore Hospital a playroom has been converted into a clinical space with 11 special care baby cots to help combat the demand.

Children under 14 years aren’t allowed to visit sick loved ones at Starship hospital due to clogged up waiting rooms and an entire ward has been dedicated to babies withRSV at Wellington Hospital.

Dr Helen Skinner, chief medical officer at Canterbury DHB, said staff had to defer four surgeries yesterday due to an increase in paediatric patients requiring urgent care.

“We are seeing an increased number of children presenting to our facilities with RSV but this has not resulted in an increase in admissions to our ICU,” Skinner said.

Dr Sue Huang – a virologist who tracks flu-like illnesses – said since New Zealand opened our bubble to Australia there had been a sharp increase in the number of RSV hospital presentations.

“The week we opened the bubble we had one presentation of RSV and it’s been increasing ever since,” Huang said.

Starship general paediatrician Professor Cameron Grant told Newstalk ZB’s Heather Du Plessis-Allan that babies born in New Zealand last year didn’t get exposed to RSV becauseof lockdown and our borders staying closed.

“Those babies are seeing RSV for the first time this year as are all the babies that are being born this year. So we have twice as many babies having their first infection, hence getting really sick with this infection,” Grant said.

It is believed the virus came from Australia.

Dr Mike Shepherd, director of provider services at Auckland DHB, said staff were seeing record numbers of tamariki at Starship Children’s Emergency Department, with many presenting with winter respiratory illnesses.

“To prevent the spread of infection, we are limiting visitors for those staying at Starship to parents and caregivers.

“Tamariki under the age of 14 years (including brothers and sisters) are unable to visit tamariki staying at Starship at this time, Shepherd said.

At Waikato Hospital two babies are in ICU with RSV, a DHB spokesman said.

“The high occupancy of the paediatric ward is restricting the ability to transfer babies from NICU to the paediatric ward as a transition plan before being discharged home,” he said.

Children diagnosed with RSV were being cohorted together, the spokesman said.

Capital and Coast DHB Child Health clinical lead Dr Andrew Marshall said almost 100 children had been admitted to Wellington Regional Hospital with RSV and respiratory illnesses in the past four weeks and a further 24 to Hutt Hospital.

Another 100 people had been seen in Te Pae Tiaki Wellington ED and 116 in Hutt ED but had not required admission.

“While these numbers are higher than in 2020, they are largely consistent with the numbers seen in previous years.”

Last week 14 children and two adults had presented with RSV at Tauranga and Whakatāne Hospitals.

DHBs were managing the patient influx within existing resources and staffing, but had the ability to utilise other clinical areas and call in additional staff if needed.

Mum terrified of losing critically ill baby

A Napier mum is terrified of losing her 4-month-old daughter who is fighting for her life in an intensive care unit after becoming infected with RSV.

“With her background, I’m worried about if she can handle this, is her heart going to handle it?” Natalie Izatt told the Herald.

Her daughter Brooklyn has battled major heart problems since she was born. Izatt said on Sunday night, after noticing her breathing was much faster, she took her into Hastings Hospital’s emergency department.

“They immediately transferred her to intensive care because of her history … they tested her and a couple of hours later she tested positive for RSV.”

Baby Brooklyn also developed bronchitis and required oxygen to help her breathe.

“It’s heart-breaking the hospital isn’t new to us … it does suck seeing your daughter this sick,” Izatt said.

She was trying to avoid her daughter getting RSV, especially due to her vulnerable immune system, Izatt said.

Her message to parents was “treat it like it’s Covid” and keep your kids home if they are sick because it’s the immune-compromised babies and children that end up in intensive care.

What is RSV?

• Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) causes infections of the lungs and respiratory tract.

• It’s so common that most children have been infected with the virus by age 2, but it can also infect adults.

• Symptoms are usually mild and typically mimic a common cold but they cause a severe infection in babies – especially premature infants and elderly or those with weak immune systems.

Advice for self-management of colds

• Get plenty of rest.

• Drink lots of fluids such as water.

• Use a humidifier to increase air moisture, especially in your bedroom.

• There are no medicines that cure a cold. Antibiotics only work against bacterial infections, not the viral infections that cause a cold.

• Symptoms can be treated with medicines such as painkillers, nose drops or sprays, cough syrups and drops, throat lozenges and decongestants.

• If you have Covid-like symptoms, please stay at home and get tested.
Source: Ministry of Health

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