Officials report big increase in respiratory syncytial virus cases
Santa Barbara County health officials have reported seeing a rise in respiratory syncytial virus as the holiday season approaches.
RSV is most dangerous to infants under 2, adults over 65, and those with a compromised immune system.
Cottage Health is seeing a significant increase in RSV cases and urges the community to take precautions to protect those most at risk. The nonprofit, which operates hospitals in Santa Barbara, Goleta and Solvang as well as various clinics, note that holiday gatherings can increase the spread of infection and serious illness.
RSV can be a serious problem for premature infants and young infants, young children, older children with asthma or chronic lung disease, and older adults. These groups may have more serious infections and trouble breathing.
“So far in October and November, we have seen 259 cases, over four times as much as this time last year,” Dr. Jenna Holmen, pediatric infectious disease specialist at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and Cottage Children’s Medical Center, told the News-Press.
Dr. Henning Ansorg, the Santa Barbara County public health officer, said pediatricians are reporting seeing ill children earlier than usual.
“This year it started in the summer much earlier. It started on the East Coast, and the West Coast followed suit about two months later,” Dr. Ansorg told the News-Press.
“Cottage and Santa Maria hospitals’ pediatric units are at capacity and have a lot of RSV infections,” Dr. Ansorg added, referring to Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria.
Dr. Holmen said the RSV season historically peaks in January and February. “So I expect rising numbers especially going into the holidays. We are just at the beginning of the RSV season.”
Most babies and children with RSV have the same symptoms as a cold or flu. These include a stuffy or runny nose, a cough, headache, and a low-grade fever. Some may develop bronchiolitis, an infection involving the lower respiratory tract and smaller airways, which causes wheezing, shortness of breath, fast breathing, and increased cough.
The News-Press asked Dr. Ansorg what precautions should be taken as the holidays approach.
“It depends on vulnerability,” Dr. Ansorg said. “RSV can cause severe and fatal pneumonia in children, older adults or those with a weakened immune system. Masks protect not only against COVID but against all viruses. Wear a well-fitting and high quality mask in public transportation and indoor crowded spaces. Don’t go to gatherings if sick, and frequently wash hands. Have a flu shot and a COVID booster.”
Dr. Holmen advises ill people to stay home and try not to infect others. “Handwashing is critical to help prevent the spread of infections. Mask wearing is not mandatory, but is a proven method to prevent transmission.”
Noted Dr. Ansorg, “RSV is spread through droplets and contact with someone who has RSV. In healthy adults and older children, it causes only mild symptoms, but can spread to vulnerable people. Don’t disregard slight colds or a runny nose.”
Dr. Holmen said there are currently no RSV vaccines, “though we are working furiously on it and hope for vaccines as soon as next year. Right now it is just everything you would do to prevent the common cold.
“We are actually seeing higher numbers than even before COVID happened. One theory is that wearing a mask has impacted our immunity,” said Dr. Holmen.
For most people, RSV is the common cold, Dr. Holmen said. “A child with a runny nose, congestion or fever can be managed at home. Any child struggling to breathe should receive medical attention.”
Dr. Ansorg said in the absence of a vaccine, there are only preventative measures, but added, “There is one medication for infants that are seriously ill, and it is only done in the hospital. It is an antibody infusion.
“RSV can be very mild to healthy people and very dangerous to young children, older adults and those with a compromised immune system,” he said. “Be careful while enjoying the holidays.”