PORTLAND and BANGOR – The unprecedented rise in Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) among babies and toddlers in Maine is now creating a significant strain on pediatric inpatient capacity across the region. At a news conference Friday, health experts from MaineHealth and Northern Light Health asked the public to remain vigilant in protecting themselves against respiratory illness.
On Friday, Nov. 4, all 87 staffed pediatric beds at The Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center (BBCH) in Portland were occupied, and other pediatric patients were boarding in the MMC Emergency Department. The 37 staffed pediatric beds at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor were 97 percent full. BBCH is considering postponing some non-emergent surgeries to create bed capacity. Eastern Maine Medical Center has already begun a process to increase availability of care, such as moving some pediatric patients with non-respiratory conditions to its neonatal intensive care unit. Additional measures will be considered as needed.
“Our inpatient capacity is really stretched right now,” said Mary Ottolini, MD, the George W. Hallett Chair of Pediatrics at BBCH. “We are fast approaching a tipping point where we won’t be able to provide the level of care we know patients need.”
RSV is a common respiratory illness with no specific treatment beyond supportive care. Most children are able to recover at home, but the disease can lead to bronchiolitis or pneumonia in babies and toddlers. Children with severe RSV can receive supportive care at the hospital, including fluids and oxygen and on occasion, more advanced respiratory support. Pediatricians with both health systems urge parents not to delay care, but to be mindful that emergency care should be reserved for the sickest patients and parents with concerns should call their primary care provider first.
“Rest assured, if you do need medical care, you are in very good hands and we will get to you as quickly as possible, but cases are being triaged to get to our sickest, more acute patients first,” said Jonathan Wood, MD, pediatric intensivist with Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center.
Parents should seek immediate care right away if their child is having trouble breathing or is breathing very fast, seems very drowsy or has lips or fingernails that look blue.
Capacity challenges at Maine hospitals are not limited to pediatrics. The nationwide shortage of health care workers at hospitals and post-acute care facilities like nursing homes has significantly limited the ability of both health systems to increase capacity when there are surges of respiratory illnesses like RSV, influenza or COVID-19. Delayed care during the pandemic has also led to higher acuity in patients seeking care, causing them to occupy hospital beds for longer periods of time.
“We are still seeing many cases of COVID and increasingly influenza. As a result, our emergency departments are still extremely busy,” said Dora Mills, MD, Chief Health Improvement Officer at MaineHealth. “We can all do our part to protect those at highest risk such as infants and the elderly by continuing the measures we were taking at the height of the COVID pandemic like masking and social distancing if you or a loved one are high-risk, and staying home when you’re sick.”
“Our ask to the public is to remain vigilant while we see an unprecedented rise in differing respiratory viruses,” said James Jarvis, MD, senior physician executive, system incident command, Northern Light Health. “Remember all the things we have done over the past three years: wash your hands or use sanitizer frequently, cough or sneeze into your elbow or tissue or better yet wear a mask in all indoor public places, stay home when you are not feeling well, and get vaccinated against COVID-19 and influenza.”
You can learn more about RSV on the Centers for Disease Control website.