Rise In Common Childhood Virus RSV Concerns Parents, Doctors

'Explosion' Of RSV Cases In Wisconsin And US Comes As COVID-19 Infections Rise

radiology technician looks at a chest X-ray of a child suffering from flu symptoms
A radiology technician looks at a chest X-ray of a child suffering from flu symptoms at Upson Regional Medical Center in Thomaston, Ga., Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. David Goldman/AP Photo

Pediatricians and public health officials in Wisconsin are dealing with a new “twindemic” as a common respiratory disease that many kids get and normally shake off is spreading earlier than usual. Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases are on the rise again.

The disease health officials and doctors around the country are seeing more of is respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV. Most children get it before age 2.

“It’s a pretty common respiratory infection that usually causes mild symptoms like a cold, but for infants and older adults RSV can be really severe,” said La Crosse County Public Health Nursing Manager Jacquie Cutts.

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RSV and COVID-19 have strikingly similar symptoms, making testing for COVID-19 all the more important so children can stay home from school or day care to avoid infecting others, if positive.

Children are not normally tested for RSV unless they’re hospitalized with the disease.

According to UW Health pediatrician Greg DeMuri, some children are getting both illnesses at once.

“We don’t know if that is worse than just COVID alone or just RSV alone. There’s some inclination it might be, and it certainly complicates the situation,” said DeMuri, noting it extends recovery and can make diagnosis tricky.

Cases of RSV usually increase in the winter, but the highly contagious lung infection is making an unwelcome appearance earlier this year.

In Wisconsin, cases of RSV started climbing in July and state data shows it’s been going up ever since. The most recent Weekly Respiratory Report from the state Department of Health Services shows that as of Aug. 21, 1,630 patients have been tested for RSV and 298 were positive.

What DeMuri called an “explosion” of infections surprised doctors and public health officials. He speculates that most kids didn’t get RSV last winter sheltering in place due to the pandemic, making them susceptible to the virus now.

Infection is easily spread in young children through the sharing of toys and constant touching of objects that may be contaminated with the virus.

Hand-washing and wiping down surfaces is especially important with RSV since it’s transmitted primarily by touch, said DeMuri.