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Pediatric ICU cases stabilizing, but influenza and COVID-19 rates rising, health experts say

Monica Sanchez Coria cares for a patient in the hallway of the Salem Health emergency department in Salem, Oregon, Jan. 27, 2022. The department has 53 patient rooms but has made space for 100 by adding hallbeds to handle the influx of people seeking treatment.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
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Monica Sanchez Coria cares for a patient in the hallway of the Salem Health emergency department in Salem, Oregon, Jan. 27, 2022. The department has 53 patient rooms but has made space for 100 by adding hallbeds to handle the influx of people seeking treatment.

Oregon continues to face a historic strain on its hospital systems as pediatric and adult respiratory illnesses slam the state.

At a media briefing Thursday, health officials said the weeks-long surge of pediatric RSV cases is starting to taper off, but influenza and COVID-19 cases among both children and adults are starting to rise.

“This really is a first for Oregon, that we have seen this,” said Dr. Wendy Hasson, the medical director of pediatric intensive care at Legacy Emanuel’s Randall’s Children Hospital. “We have dealt with respiratory surges every single season every single year, but this operating above capacity really is historic and new.”

State epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger said the combination of RSV, influenza and COVID is pushing hospital intensive care units beyond capacity, “which never happened during the darkest days of our COVID-19 pandemic in Oregon.”

“The situation facing our hospital is extremely serious,” Sidelinger said. “Today, more hospitals are reaching a point of crisis in their adult bed capacity just as our pediatric hospitals moved to crisis care standards in the past two weeks.”

Health officials at the meeting relayed stories of hours-long emergency room waits, and of treating patients in hallways or in surge rooms.

The good news: the worst of RSV cases among children is now behind us, Sidelinger said. Cases are starting to stabilize since the Nov. 19 peak. Pediatric ICU bed availability has also increased, thanks in part to diminishing cases and an executive order issued by Gov. Kate Brown in late November, which was extended Wednesday. Those orders allowed hospitals to stretch resources — for instance, by assigning more patients to each nurse — thereby creating more bed space for children.

Meanwhile, influenza rates among people age 65 and older are rising. Sidelinger said since late October, those rates have increased tenfold. He expects rates to continue rising through the winter, as people gather indoors over the holidays.

COVID infections are also rising quickly, which health officials are measuring through wastewater monitoring. COVID-related hospitalizations have also risen, Sidelinger said, moving from 235 to 347 this past month.

“COVID-19 deaths remained flat over the last few months, but deaths are a lagging indicator,” he said. “We may unfortunately see that trend change.”

Reporters asked why the Oregon Health Authority wasn’t calling on National Guard members to assist nurses during the crises. Sidelinger said workforces in other industries are thin, so pulling Guard volunteers from their full-time jobs is difficult. He and Hasson added that pediatric cases need careful and specialized care that most Guard members can’t provide.

The health officials called on people to wear a face mask when in indoor crowded spaces, and if possible, avoid going to them altogether.

“I want to encourage parents, particularly of very young babies, to feel empowered to say ‘no’ to visitors,” Hasson said. “That can be really hard, but now is the time to say, ‘No, thank you. I do not want visitors seeing my young baby.’”

Hassan said of all the pediatric influenza patients she’s seen, none had been vaccinated for influenza.

“Flu vaccines work,” She said. “They keep kids out of the hospital. And I cannot stress this enough: If you have been on the fence about getting your flu vaccine, now is the time to get one immediately to keep your child out of the hospital.”

Despite the emergency, Sidelinger said OHA isn’t considering requesting a mask mandate.

“The mask mandate in and of itself doesn’t help,” Sidelinger said. “It’s individuals choosing to wear that mask.”

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

April Ehrlich began freelancing for Jefferson Public Radio in the fall of 2016, and then officially joined the team as its Morning Edition Host and a Jefferson Exchange producer in August 2017.