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Washington hospitals report overcrowding with respiratory patients

Sacred Heart Children's Hospital exterior shot
Courtesy of Providence Health
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Sacred Heart Children's Hospital is one of several in Washington that is strained by the number of patients seeking care for respiratory problems.

Hospital officials say RSV and flu are driving up their patient counts.

The cold and flu season is leaving its mark on Washington’s hospitals.

Hospital officials from Seattle to Spokane say their facilities are full, in part due to a large number of children suffering from respiratory illnesses, especially respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.

Dr. Mary Alice King, the medical director of the Pediatric Trauma Intensive Care Unit at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, says it’s unusual to see this many RSV cases this early in the fall.

“This is our Covid. This is our moment in pediatrics,” she said. “We sometimes work a bit in a silo, so it can be hard at non-pediatric centers to feel that. But right now that is the stress in our pediatric hospitals. We’re terrified that we won’t be able to take care of all the kids.”

“Over 60% of our emergency department visits that we’re seeing are respiratory related and about 80% of our hospital admissions right now are respiratory related,” said Ben Whitworth at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma.

Tony Woodward, the medical director of emergency medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital, says his facility’s ER is 100% full nearly 24 hours a day. He says the hospital has patients in hallways, storerooms, tents and lobbies. He expects the surge will continue for awhile. To combat it, he encourages people to go back to adopting the behaviors that stop or reduce the spread of infectious disease, including masking.

King says the situation is serious enough that there should be a major public relations campaign to call attention to it and to encourage parents to get their children immunized for flu.

“We need aggressive wide scale flu shot campaigns for kids,” King said. “The schools have shot clinics for Covid shots. Hardly any of them have flu shots. It’s just logistically super challenging for working parents, and those are the families that have small kids that are more vulnerable for RSV. Those are the ones that I’m worried about.”

Part of the problem, she says, is that children have been isolated the last few years to protect them from contracting Covid. That has led to immunity problems.

“It really seems like kids not getting these viruses over the first zero, one, two years for the past few years has changed their susceptibility,” King said. “They’re just getting it more and there’s more of them getting it faster, spreading it to each other because there’s more vulnerability, less herd immunity.”

“Many of the families have not had sick kids before,” Woodward said. “Before the last couple years, everybody had sick kids. It was just part of the rite of passage and now there are a lot of sick kids who are getting sicker and we haven’t had the experience in our households to judge the level of illness.”

King says overcrowded hospitals are working with the Washington Medical Coordination Center at Harborview to shift patients to facilities that have more space. That was a common practice during Covid pandemic surges.

King, Woodward and Whitworth spoke Monday during a Washington State Hospital Association briefing.