Surge in respiratory viruses is stretching hospital’s resources

AS RESPIRATORY VIRUSES surge, the emergency room at Hasbro Children’s Hospital is experiencing unusually long waiting times. / COURTESY HASBRO CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL

PROVIDENCE – An unprecedented rise in respiratory viruses this season is stretching resources at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, where wait times in the emergency room can last up to 10 hours.

“We are struggling with our resources, especially around spaces and even with things as simple as cribs for babies,” said Dr. Linda Brown, division director of pediatric emergency medicine. “We’re stretching all of the resources.”

Hasbro, like many other hospitals across the country, is seeing an unusually high number of cases of patients suffering from respiratory viruses, including the flu, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.

While several respiratory viruses are bringing patients to the emergency room, by far the hospital is seeing the biggest increase in RSV cases, specifically in younger infants.

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RSV is a relatively common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms. While most people recover on their own, some populations are at higher risk, including premature infants, children with chronic lung disease or congenital heart disease, children with weakened immune systems or with neuromuscular disorders, and adults that are older than 65 or have weakened immune systems.

While RSV cases usually peak around December and January, a wave has hit Rhode Island – and the whole United States – earlier this year, with cases that are currently double what is seen during a typical January peak.

Data reported by Lifespan Corp. and collected by the R.I. Department of Health shows that the number of positive respiratory pathogen tests is significantly higher than in past years.

During the first week of November, Lifespan reported 321 positive cases, compared with the 73 reported during the same week in 2021. This is much higher than even the highest number of positive cases in the past years: the highest number reported in 2021 was 116, followed by 93 in 2020 and 83 in 2019.

The virus is not only hitting more children than usual but, in many cases, it seems more severe, Brown said, especially when found in patients under 6 months old and children with chronic medical issues.

This unexpected peak is stretching resources at Hasbro and causing a higher-than-usual number of emergency room visits.

Brown said the emergency room is seeing more than 125% of the normal volume of cases it usually sees during this time of year, an increase that is lengthening wait times. Depending on the time of day, patients with minor complaints might have to wait for up to 10 hours before a doctor can assist them.

“We want people whose children are sick to come to the emergency room, but we are triaging the sickest patients first,” Brown said.

The R.I. Department of Health sent out a series of recommendations for people to protect themselves from these viruses, including receiving the flu shot and COVID-19 booster. But since there currently is no vaccine against RSV, Brown said parents should pay attention to possible symptoms, which include runny nose, fever, cough and congestion; practice good hygiene; and keep children at home if sick.

Claudia Chiappa is a PBN staff writer. You may contact her at 

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