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Pediatric capacity at Maine hospitals is strained as RSV cases surge

George HW Bush Falls
David Sharp
AP file
The sun's rays shine over the Maine Medical Center Thursday, July 16, 2015, in Portland, Maine.

Hospital officials say the surge of RSV cases among children in Maine is growing. At a joint press conference Friday, officials at MaineHealth and Northern Light Health said pediatric beds at the state's two largest hospitals are at or near capacity.

The Barbara Bush Children's Hospital at Maine Medical Center has 87 pediatric beds. At Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center, there are 37. Nearly all of those 124 beds were filled as of Friday, many with children who have respiratory viruses, including RSV.

Dr. Jonathan Wood of EMMC says it's surging much earlier than usual.

"This is actually when we kind of start to see RSV, and we're already seeing it as if it were the middle of January in a usual year," he says.

Most people experience RSV as a cold. But young children — especially babies younger than 6 months old — are at risk for severe symptoms that make it difficult to breathe. Some even need to be put on ventilators.

Both the severity and the spread of RSV have some pediatricians comparing the situation to the beginning of the COVID pandemic.

"The difference between now and in Jan. 2020 is our health system is really strained,"
says Dr. Mary Ottolini, chair of pediatrics at Barbara Bush.

Ottolini says that strain is due to larger numbers of patients and fewer staff. Many left during the height of the pandemic due to burnout.

To preserve capacity, hospital officials are urging families to take precautions to prevent their kids from becoming severely ill by wearing masks and keeping babies out of crowded indoor spaces. And if a child does become sick, to call their pediatrician first before going to the emergency room.

"Please strongly consider getting an influenza shot for your child because we are about to enter the influenza season on top of this early RSV season," Wood says. "And that combination when those two are overlapping — which they do every year — but in this year, it could be quite extraordinary."