4 Researched: In the RSV crisis

ALBUQUERQUE, NM — It’s a silent crisis whose soundtrack is the beeping of heart or respiratory monitors, the occasional croup, and thorny infant cries.

“This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” says Maribeth Thornton, assistant director of nursing at the University of New Mexico Children’s Hospital.

On a recent evening, she led a 4-screen crew through two makeshift wards set up to try to treat an early-season outsize surge in cases of RSV — or respiratory syncytial virus. One is a post-operative convalescent ward not normally used for night care. The other is a 12-bed day care center on the third floor of the hospital. Blue curtains drape from rails on the ceiling while families speak softly and uncomfortable children occasionally cry.

“This is the first year that we have had to open this space to care for children with viral illnesses,” says Thornton.

RSV is a normal seasonal event. In winter, it is often one of the main causes of infant hospitalizations. Not only do young children have smaller lungs, they are also less able to clear their airways, meaning pediatric nurses are a must when treating serious cases.

Thornton said the hospital often hires additional traveling nurses for a three-month RSV season in January. But as confirmed case numbers doubled and New Mexico recently led a group of CDC-tracked states for RSV hospitalization rates, the facility and others like giving weary nurses the support they need. UNM has employed 150 pediatric nurses, Thornton says, but could easily use 40 more.

New Mexico hospitals recently issued a call for recently retired pediatric nurses to return to pick up shifts.

RSV is transmitted through droplets spread by coughing and sneezing. Many medical experts believe that younger children, who have been relatively isolated during COVID, have not been able to build up the normal resistance to seasonal viruses, leading to what is known as an immunity gap that exacerbates the spread of viral diseases. However, the pandemic also provided a template for limiting disease transmission. Health care workers say frequent hand washing and even strategic masking of coughing children can help control the spread of RSV as Thanksgiving approaches. While the disease most commonly affects young children, older adults with compromised immune systems are also more susceptible to more severe cases.

As nurses pace between beds, they may not appear like they are in crisis mode, but the day-to-day care required in a place where there’s rarely an empty bed takes its toll.

“We’ve had 125 to 135 percent capacity for the past week,” says Thornton. “Our employees work incredibly hard and are tired, both physically and emotionally.”