An "unusual increase" in cases of a respiratory virus is ramping up pressure on the already strained health care sector in Massachusetts, and Bay Staters should take steps including possible indoor masking to protect themselves, medical experts said Wednesday.
Leaders of three statewide medical groups warned that physicians are dealing with a spike of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases, particularly in children, "that is causing severe illness and stretching capacity in emergency departments and hospitals."
Massachusetts Medical Society President Ted Calianos, Massachusetts Academy of Family Physicians President Emily Chin, and American Academy of Pediatrics Massachusetts Chapter President Mary Beth Miotto urged Massachusetts families to vaccinate all children older than 6 months against both the flu and COVID-19, including COVID boosters for children older than 5, and practice regular hand hygiene.
Children and adolescents who display symptoms such as fever, coughs, congestion and sore throats should stay home until they are free of a fever for 24 hours, and "anyone gathering in crowded indoor spaces, including children who are symptomatic, should consider wearing a mask," the doctors said.
"Our level of concern has been elevated to the point at which we are compelled to share and recommend mitigation measures that can help to prevent illness," the experts said in a joint statement. "This will not only lessen the burden on our over-stressed health care system, which is especially important as we approach the holiday season, but will also reduce interruptions to in-person learning and other children's activities that can result from outbreaks caused by viral infections."
Many providers across the country have observed an increase in RSV among pediatric patients. In Massachusetts, the five-week average of RSV cases detected by PCR test was 4.4 on March 19; by Nov. 12, that figure had exploded to 296.3, according to data reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
The Department of Public Health issued guidance to hospital leaders on Oct. 31 with steps to deal with "significant pediatric inpatient capacity constraints," including a requirement for all hospitals with licensed pediatric beds to maximize staffing of those bids including those that are still certified but not currently in use.
The growing impact of RSV comes as health care providers grapple with widespread staffing challenges, which one recent report estimated have left Massachusetts hospitals nearly 20,000 workers short, as well as the specter of another possible COVID-19 surge.
A majority of Massachusetts residents are vaccinated against COVID-19, which will help blunt the virus's impact, but cases and hospitalizations spiked in each of the previous two winters during the pandemic.