A drastic increase in respiratory syncytial virus or RSV cases among children in the United States is overwhelming hospital staff and underscoring the need for more pediatric nurses. According to a recent CNN report, RSV cases are 60 percent higher than at their peak in 2021, and young children are getting hit hard. The Lancet Respiratory Medicine estimates that 1 in 50 deaths in children 5 years and younger is attributed to RSV.
Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, reported being “overwhelmed,” and Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC, warned the surge is “exacerbated by” healthcare workforce shortages nationally.
Respiratory Syncytial Virus
Defined by the CDC as “a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms,” most patients recover from RSV in a week or so. Almost all children get RSV by age 2, but some can develop bronchiolitis and pneumonia. According to Scientific American, hospitals have historically planned staffing around a predictable RSV season. But multiple years of social distancing and mask-wearing have left many children susceptible to what scientists call an “immunity gap” and disrupted typical infection patterns.
Typically, 58,000 to 80,000 children under age 5 are hospitalized each year due to RSV. However, since October, “one in every 500 babies, six months and younger, were hospitalized with RSV,” per the New York Times. Hospitals have been preparing for a ‘tripledemic” of influenza, COVID, and other respiratory illnesses, but their efforts come in the wake of an ongoing staffing shortage.
Healthcare Workforce Shortage
The need for more healthcare workers was apparent before the pandemic. A 2019 white paper titled Critical Shortage of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners Predicted warned of the need for more staff. Then came COVID. Akron Children’s Hospital in Ohio saw retirement among staff almost double in 2021. And a 2022 Health Affairs analysis revealed 100,000 nurses left the workforce between 2020 to 2021, the most significant drop in four decades, including a 4.0 percent reduction in nurses 35 and younger. Plus, COVID infections continue to deplete hospital staff intermittingly.
Healthcare officials and staffing providers have been sounding the alarm. At the 2022 Staffing Industry Analysts Healthcare Summit in Houston, MedPro Healthcare Staffing CEO Liz Tonkin discussed the role of foreign-educated healthcare professionals in alleviating the staffing shortage. “Many nurses working outside the U.S. still aspire to achieve the ‘American Dream,’” said Tonkin. “Right now, about 10 percent of nurses working in the U.S. are foreign-trained, but we could raise that number and make a significant impact on health care.”
Nationally, 80 percent of pediatric beds are filled. And in some cases, such as recently in Rhode Island, 99 percent of beds were full. The Delaware Healthcare Association took a proactive approach in the midst of the early flu and RSV surge to request nurses with inpatient pediatric experience to assist. Pediatric intensive care unit beds in Los Angeles County are at 70 percent capacity as flu cases reach levels “not seen in years,” according to a recent Los Angeles Times article. California state health officials recommended healthcare facilities seek “short-term measures to expand capacity for evaluation and treatment of pediatric patients.” Still, hospitals and healthcare workers are already “feeling stressed,” and the California Health Department reported the season’s first flu or RSV death of a child under 5 years just this week.
Rates of the flu, RSV, and COVID are expected to increase as the country enters the peak months of December through March. Several companies have begun trials, but there is no RSV vaccine yet. However, COVID and flu vaccines are widely available, and the CDC recommends getting both to protect against infection and the spreading of the viruses.