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How the surge in respiratory illnesses is affecting local pediatricians
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Dr. Eugene Cindea and Elisha Lee, LPN, work with a pediatric nebulizer used for children with respiratory illness Friday, Nov. 4, 2022, at Longstreet Clinic. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases are rising nationally and locally. - photo by Scott Rogers

Local pediatric offices are bursting at the seams amid a surge in child respiratory illnesses. 

“Our phone lines are just constantly ringing,” said Saima Hussain, a pediatrician at Longstreet Clinic in Braselton, adding that they are “slammed” with respiratory syncytial virus and influenza cases. 

“This is probably the worst I've seen in my career,” she said of RSV cases. “The interesting thing about RSV this year is it’s starting earlier than I'm used to. We started seeing RSV cases last month and September, and we're not used to seeing RSV that early.”

“It’s just crazy,” said Marcus Bullock, practice administrator for Pediatric Associates in Gainesville and Braselton, adding that his pediatricians are overwhelmed and burned out. “Normally flu is much greater than RSV, but RSV has really come roaring through this year.” 

An RSV infection can cause common cold-like symptoms such as runny nose, cough and fever. Nearly all U.S. children catch the virus by age 2. 

But experts speculate that two years of masking and other coronavirus protocols have weakened children’s immune systems, meaning children who would have otherwise been exposed to RSV or the flu may be encountering these viruses for the first time. RSV usually affects children at ages 1 and 2, but is now sickening more kids up to age 5.

“I think it did in some sense reset, sort of on a population level, everyone's immunity to a lot of these respiratory viruses,” said Matt Linam, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “Our emergency departments and urgent cares are still seeing fairly unprecedented volumes which unfortunately is translating to longer wait times for a lot of children.” 

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Nurse Elisha Lee, LPN, holds a pediatric nebulizer used for delivering medicine into the lungs of children with respiratory illness Friday, Nov. 4, 2022, at Longstreet Clinic. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases are rising nationally and locally. - photo by Scott Rogers

Linam said RSV cases have begun to taper off, but the surge in flu cases has been unrelenting. 

“What's really driving it right now is we've seen a dramatic increase in the number of children presenting at urgent cares and emergency departments that are testing positive for the flu — numbers higher than I've seen in a long time,” he said, adding that the flu season arrived six weeks earlier this year. “We’re definitely seeing more cases a lot sooner.” 

In the past week, he said, about 42% of children in Children’s emergency departments tested positive for the flu. In urgent care centers, that number was about 60%. 

“Those are really high numbers,” he said. The spike in flu cases is “way higher than we've seen over the last few years, because it was way down during the pandemic, but it’s way higher than what we've seen a year or two before the pandemic started as well.” 

National flu hospitalizations haven’t been this high this early since the 2009 swine flu pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control. States in the southeast and the south-central U.S. are reporting the highest number of flu cases. The Georgia Department of Public Health ranks Georgia flu activity as “very high,” a 12 out of 13. 

The CDC estimates that, so far this season, there have been at least 1.6 million flu cases, 13,000 hospitalizations and 730 deaths. Two children have died from the flu this season. 

The CDC says an annual flu vaccine is the best way to protect against flu, and recommends that everyone 6 months and older get a flu vaccine every year.

Bullock said while RSV cases predominate at his clinics, they have nevertheless seen a huge surge in flu cases in the past two weeks, accompanied by a worrying drop in the number of people getting flu shots. 

He lamented the lull in flu vaccinations, blaming “vaccine fatigue” and the increased visibility of vaccine misinformation in the news and on social media. “The anti-vaxxers have gained a much more prominent voice and are being heard,” he said. 

Linam said that while the vaccine's effectiveness at preventing the flu varies from season to season, “it is very, very good at keeping you from developing serious illness or ending up in the hospital or even dying from the flu.”

You do not have to schedule an appointment for a flu vaccine and can find a location on the Department of Public Health’s website

There is not yet a vaccine for RSV, though recent research published last week by Pfizer shows some promise. 

Pfizer announced Nov. 1 that a large international study found vaccinating moms-to-be was nearly 82% effective at preventing severe cases of RSV in their babies’ most vulnerable first 90 days of life. At age 6 months, the vaccine still was proving 69% effective against serious illness — and there were no signs of safety problems in mothers or babies.

Pfizer says the vaccine also proved protective for seniors. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.