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RSV Hits Local Communities as Winter Approaches

Central Vermont Medical Center. Photo by Mara Brooks.
As local schools work toward normalcy post-COVID-19, the road remains rocky as other respiratory viruses affect children. One such virus, RSV, has roared to the forefront in central Vermont communities.

“We’re seeing high rates of RSV among children in the community,” Central Vermont Medical Center Pediatric Primary Care Physician Dr. Anna Hankins said. 

RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, typically causes cold-like symptoms, Hankins said, but in very young children and babies, inflammation plus mucus in already-tiny airways can cause more significant issues with breathing. Other compounding factors for pediatric patients include asthma and congenital heart disease.

Schools are at the forefront. “Schools are in a hard place,” Hankins noted, “because on the one hand they don’t want to have their schools be a site of infection spreading. On the other hand, it’s hard to come up with a simple rule that will prevent spread.” Children with RSV can remain infectious without fever, so this obvious symptom does not indicate whether a child might spread RSV. “And the cough with RSV can linger for two or three weeks after the illness,” Hankins said; another respiratory illness might appear once RSV-caused cough resolves, restarting the cycle, and “you can’t keep a kid out for a month because they’re coughing,” Hankins said.

Barre Unified Union School District Superintendent Chris Hennessy noted in an email that while he is not aware of RSV-related issues specifically, “general sickness is high; cold, bugs, flu, etc.” He added that COVID is present but “very hard to track these days.”

As we emerge from COVID-19, many remain used to worrying about airborne virus transmission, but, Hankins said, RSV “transmits differently. It can spread through infected respiratory droplets in the air, so if somebody coughs or sneezes near you, that can spread it, but it can also live on toys, countertops, crib rails, and so you touch a contaminated object and then you wipe your eyes or into your nose, and you’ve just transmitted it to yourself.” The virus can live on surfaces for hours, Hankins said.

RSV is not new — it appears annually around December, Hankins said. “Right now, with it being at such high rates, it’s creating a big strain on our health systems.” The sudden shift this year is possibly linked to COVID, Hankins noted. 

“One compelling theory is that a couple of years of wearing masks and staying home or limiting contact with lots of people made it so that children just weren’t in contact with these viruses when they were little, so they’re sort of getting two years of it now.” 

So what can parents and schools do? There is currently no RSV vaccine, but another vaccine can help keep central Vermonters healthy, said Hankins.

“Anybody who hasn’t gotten their flu shot needs to go get their flu shot,” Hankins said. “I think that’s just really important.” She later added, “What I tell families who are asking about the flu shot, is that influenza is common, it’s unpredictable and it can be lethal, so it’s not a vaccine I would ever, ever, ever skip for my children, or myself. So if there’s one thing people can do right now that will contribute to the health of their families and the health of our community, it’s get their flu shot.”

Other precautions Hankins suggested included frequent handwashing, covering sneezes, cleaning surfaces like doorknobs and counters, and not sharing drinking glasses.

“I think we all just need to recognize that this is a hard time,” Hankins said. “It’s a hard time to be a parent, because it’s really frightening to see your child sick, or working hard to breathe, and at two in the morning to try to figure out whether you need to come to the emergency room (or) whether to call the office.” 

She later added, “It’s hard to be in a pediatrics office right now, because we have people calling out sick, because all of us are susceptible to respiratory viruses, and then we have this high volume of calls and of patients needing to be seen, and we want to really take excellent care of them, so there’s just this intensity right now, and that’s difficult, and this will pass and we’ll get through it, and we just want to do the best job we can in the middle of it.”