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Doctors urge home care, prevention during respiratory virus surge

A large hospital building
Due to a recent surge in viral infections, the Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU has been diverting pediatric emergency room patients to other hospitals. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Respiratory viruses are rapidly spreading among children statewide — weeks earlier than doctors normally expect a fall surge to begin. Local hospitals are feeling the stress, with inpatient beds across the city filling up. 

The Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU is no different, with cases high enough to send nearby ambulances to hospitals farther away. 

“We've been on ambulance diversion for the past two and a half days,” Dr. Tiffany Kimbrough, a general pediatrician at the hospital, said Friday morning. “We can’t take any incoming ambulances to the pediatric emergency room.” 

Kimbrough said the kids who do get into the ER are waiting several hours before a bed becomes available. And because so many inpatient beds are full, some patients have to be held and treated in the ER, as opposed to areas of the hospital better suited to their conditions, like the pediatric intensive care unit. 

Kimbrough said parents can help medical teams with patient loads by knowing when to take their child to the hospital and when to stay home. She encouraged people to contact a primary care provider for “more routine” symptoms — those include cough, stuffy nose and low-grade fever. 

She told parents taking care of kids at home to give them lots of fluids and over-the-counter pain medication as needed. Kimbrough also suggested parents ask a physician if their child needs additional support. 

So far, most of the surge in Richmond and elsewhere has been attributed to respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, which often affects children. The virus usually causes a common cold. 

“But for little ones, [it] can really lead to some increased difficulty with breathing,” Kimbrough said.  

She said to look out for flared nostrils or ribs sucking in. Any child 3 months of age or younger with a fever — or showing signs of dehydration — should receive emergency medical attention, too.  

“We’re really trying to save our emergency room for those children who are having a harder time,” Kimbrough said. 

The last two weeks have also brought an early uptick in influenza infections, said Kimbrough — and childhood vaccinations for the flu are relatively low this year. 

“Typically, at this point in the season, we have about 20% of children vaccinated against influenza. We're only at about 10% for the state right now,” Kimbrough said. 

The Virginia Department of Health reported Thursday that the state is seeing “very high” levels of influenza-like illness activity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also gave the Richmond area a “very high” activity rating. 

Kimbrough said to remember the lessons of the past few years and encouraged the use of now-familiar strategies like masking and distancing. 

“A lot of us did take our masks off because we were seeing COVID trends headed in the right direction. But what we saw during COVID is that a lot of these respiratory illnesses were kept at bay,” Kimbrough said. She also recommended hygiene practices, like washing hands well and often. 

Richmond and Henrico Health Districts nurse manager Amy Popovich agreed, saying it’s important to recognize who you’re around, too. 

“When visiting your older loved ones at nursing homes or when being around small kids, wear a mask to protect them,” Popovich said. 

Popovich and Kimbrough also urged Richmonders to get their updated flu and COVID-19 shots. Now is a good time, too — both shots take about two weeks before immunity is built up, although COVID-19 boosters are considered effective right away. 

COVID-19 vaccines are available for children 6 months of age and older, while the booster has been approved for children 5 years old and up.  

Vaccines are available around the state, and the Richmond and Henrico Health Districts regularly host walk-up COVID 19 vaccine clinics

At least one area school, St. Michael’s Episcopal School, closed temporarily to manage a respiratory infection outbreak, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch

Richmond Public Schools officials told VPM News they are monitoring absences and illness levels in city schools. 

Flu season generally peaks between December and February, according to the CDC.