RSV - Photo courtesy of Pepermpron on Shutterstock

Citing a record number of pediatric hospitalizations and emergency room visits, Orange County was under a health emergency declaration Tuesday, with the county health officer pointing to a sharp rise in cases of the respiratory infection RSV, combined with COVID-19 and flu.

Cases of RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, have been on the rise nationally, exacerbating a health system still coping with the COVID pandemic and an earlier-than-usual onset of flu season.

“While there isn’t a vaccine against RSV, we want OC residents to know there are many ways to protect children and at-risk individuals. Following preventive measures, including remaining up to date with other vaccinations such as flu and COVID-19, can help reduce the severity of disease and can help reduce the burden on hospitals this fall and winter,” Orange County Health Officer Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong said in a statement. “Our best shot at protecting ourselves and our children from respiratory illnesses continues to be the same things we practiced throughout the pandemic including the use of masks when indoors around others and staying home when you are sick.”

In addition to a countywide declaration of health emergency, a proclamation of local emergency was also issued, allowing the county to access state and federal resources to address the rise in virus infections.

The Orange County Health Care Agency Emergency Medical Services is monitoring regional hospital capacity, and officials said they are working with hospitals experiencing particularly high patient volumes in pediatric units and emergency departments.

RSV is a relatively common respiratory virus. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most patients recover in a week or two, but it can become a serious illness for infants and older adults. CDC officials have been tracking higher-than-usual infection numbers, reporting that some regions of the country are already nearing “seasonal peak levels” of hospitalizations and ER visits due to RSV.

The Orange County Health Care Agency recommended that parents seek medical attention immediately for children showing warning signs, which may include difficulty breathing, signs of dehydration, persistent or high fever, or looking or acting very sick.

The Health Care Agency also offered a list of preventive actions:

— Do not go to school or work when you are symptomatic.

— Avoid close contact such as kissing, hugging, and sharing cups or eating utensils with people who are sick, and when you are sick.

— Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your upper shirt sleeve, not your hands. Mask when indoors or large group settings.

— Wash your hands frequently, especially before and after eating and using the bathroom.

— Get flu shots and COVID-19 vaccines to prevent complications from these viral illnesses.

In neighboring Los Angeles County, Public Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday the county is seeing a higher-than-usual number of RSV cases for this time of year, and health officials are monitoring the situation. He also reported a higher-than-normal percentage of pediatric patients at hospital emergency rooms who are testing positive for flu-like symptoms.

But Davis said thus far, local hospitals have not seen a major spike in pediatric hospital beds being filled due to RSV cases. However, he said that does not mean hospitals are not experiencing any stress, noting the coupling impacts of flu, COVID and staffing shortages.

Rates of flu infections are also rising earlier than normal in Los Angeles County. Davis said it is too early to tell if the earlier-than-usual onset of flu and RSV cases will lead to dramatic increases in cases throughout the season. But he said the higher numbers do “warrant precautions.”

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion by Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn calling on the county to develop a public-outreach campaign to provide parents with information about RSV and preventative measures and encourage childhood vaccinations. The motion also calls for a more detailed report within 60 days from health officials on RSV case numbers and hospitalizations in the county.

Their motion contends that the positivity rate for RSV has nearly doubled in the past three weeks in the county, “and many hospitals are beginning to report capacity strains.”

More information on RSV and preventive measures is available online at www.cdc.gov/rsv/about/prevention.html.

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