Hospitals across the Greater Houston area are reporting a rise in both respiratory syncytial virus—RSV—and influenza A cases, with the Texas Hospital Association reporting 88% of pediatric beds in Texas were occupied, according to an Oct. 28 news release.

Carrie Kroll, the Texas Hospital Association’s vice president of advocacy, public policy and political strategy, said RSV is a respiratory virus that affects the bottom area of the lungs and creates a situation where those who contract it may experience difficulty breathing due to inflamed airways. RSV can be contracted through touching surfaces, according to Kroll.

Kroll said the spread of RSV is likely due to the last few years of COVID-19 restrictions, with those who were socially distancing and wearing masks less exposed to germs. As a result, their immune systems now are unable to fight off the infection, she said.

“Young people who were essentially in a cocoon for the better part of two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic are seeing that they have less immunity to these diseases,” Kroll said.

High numbers of flu, RSV cases

Dr. Jason Knight, the chief medical officer for Houston Methodist The Woodlands Hospital, said the hospital system is seeing a rise in both RSV and flu cases, and attributes lack of exposure as one of the causes of the spike in cases.

“What essentially happened is all of those infections that people haven’t been exposed to in the last 2.5 years just shot all the way through the community,” Knight said. “A lot of day care kids got sick; a lot of school-aged children got sick, and those school-aged kids basically got their parents sick and got their grandparents sick, and it spread really rapidly throughout the community.”

Between Sept. 19-Nov. 14, the Houston Methodist hospital system saw 5,448 positive influenza A tests, 112 positive influenza B tests and 986 positive RSV cases, according to the Houston Methodist Respiratory Pathogen Epidemiology Snapshot.

“We’re actually seeing the highest number of patients we’ve ever seen this past month at Houston Methodist The Woodlands Hospital emergency department,” Knight said in a Nov. 17 interview.

Dr. Mauricio Pinto, the chief medical officer at HCA Houston Healthcare Tomball, said the hospital has also seen an increase in flu and RSV cases. In a phone interview on Nov. 22, Pinto said the loosening of pandemic protection protocols and an increase in public gatherings are contributing to a rise in cases.

“I think overall, in our Houston market, there’s been a large increase of flu and RSV,” Pinto said. “Comparatively to last year, [there has been] about a 160% increase. So, it’s a pretty large increase we’ve seen here.”

In a Nov. 18 interview with Texas Children’s Pathologist-In-Chief Jim Versalovic, Versalovic confirmed the hospital has reported 60 children hospitalized with RSV and more than 20 children hospitalized with influenza A. Versalovic said respiratory distress is the primary reason a child with RSV or influenza A would be hospitalized.

“So we’ve had numbers between 80-100 children now on a daily basis positive for either RSV or influenza,” Versalovic said.

Knight said that due to the number of children getting sick, the number of pediatric beds is decreasing.

“I recently had a child in my emergency department that was really sick that we had to transfer 175 miles away because there were no hospital beds for this particular child in the entire metro Houston area,” Knight said.

Kroll said staffing problems will also contribute to the lack of beds. She said due to nurses and doctors retiring during the COVID-19 pandemic, if there are not enough workers they cannot open beds for patients.

“It’s not just that more people are sick, there’s fewer beds to put them in,” Kroll said. “A bed is just a bed without staff, and so we may and some of our hospitals have more beds than we are able to put patients in because we don’t have the staff to treat them.”

Looking ahead

Knight said the winter season is when respiratory infections are typically at their worst levels. To mitigate the number of cases, Knight said he recommends children stay home when they are sick.

“Typically, respiratory infections over the winter remain particularly high and the reason has do to—one with holiday travel,” Knight said. “The second is that as the weather gets colder, a lot more people come indoors, and there’s less ventilation, and there’s more close proximity of people, and it only takes one person to show up at Thanksgiving dinner sick to infect a whole room of people.”

Kroll said if an individual believes they are experiencing symptoms related to RSV or influenza, they should go to their general practitioner's office and only seek emergency room services if the diagnosis has been given and is escalating to provide beds and rooms for those with more immediate needs. Kroll also said ways to combat contracting the viruses include getting the influenza vaccine and COVID-19 booster.

“It’s just important to stay vigilant,” Kroll said. “If you know that somebody in your family or people that you have been around have been sick, just watch for symptoms.”