RSV and other illnesses are crowding emergency rooms, health department warns

By ERIN PETENKO

VTDigger

Published: 01-17-2024 9:39 AM

A surge in respiratory illnesses caused increased patient volumes and long wait times at Vermont emergency departments this week, according to a health update from the state Department of Health.

The department said that a rise in RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, was responsible for the surge but that COVID-19 and influenza were also circulating and driving patient numbers higher.

“This surge of illness is straining health care systems across the region, causing bed shortages, staffing shortages and long wait times for medical care,” officials said in the update, which was sent to health care providers and health care facilities across the state.

The department requested that providers take certain actions to lighten the strain on hospital beds, such as giving their patients information on alternatives to emergency departments for late nights and weekends.

It also recommended that long-term care facilities rely on care within facilities rather than sending patients to hospitals and that doctor’s offices consider telehealth as an option over in-person care.

It’s unclear how many people are hospitalized for RSV statewide. But the state has reported a cumulative increase in emergency department visits for the three viruses in recent weeks, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The health department reported last Wednesday that 59 people had been hospitalized for COVID in Vermont in the past week, the highest number the state has reported since January 2023.

Also on Wednesday, the University of Vermont Medical Center announced a partial return to staff masking in patient-care settings.

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Annie Mackin, a spokesperson for the hospital’s operator, UVM Health Network, said via email that a variety of factors contributed to long wait times in the emergency department. Among them is a shortage of long-term care beds that limited the number of patients who can be discharged from the hospital, “which in turn limits the number of beds available for new patients who need acute care.”

The health department recommended that patients follow universal disease prevention guidelines, including staying up to date on recommended vaccines. Everyone 6 months or older is recommended to get an updated influenza and COVID vaccine.

The department also recommends that infants, young children, adults over 60 and pregnant people receive an RSV vaccine or preventative treatment for the disease, depending on their exact ages and underlying health conditions. Infants and older adults are particularly susceptible to severe cases of RSV.

The department recommends additional measures to prevent transmission, such as washing hands frequently. It suggests people wear masks when they have mild respiratory symptoms or are spending time around vulnerable people.

The department said that people should isolate themselves if they have acute respiratory symptoms, even if they have tested negative for COVID — a reflection of the prevalence of multiple types of illnesses circulating in the community.

To protect infants during RSV season, the department said families should practice good hand hygiene and limit the number of people holding, kissing and touching the infant.