Nationwide, RSV arrived two months ahead of schedule, and likewise, Santa Barbara has increasing numbers of cases of RSV, or respiratory syncytial (pronounced sync-SIH-shuhl) virus compared to last year. A survey of hospitals showed that Santa Barbara County had more than 400 cases this season, and for Cottage Health, their patients with RSV are up four-fold over this time last year.
At Cottage, 259 positive RSV cases were treated this October and November, compared to 61 RSV cases during the same months last year, said Dr. Jenna Holmen, who is a specialist in pediatric infectious disease at Cottage. Currently, Cottage holds 30 patients diagnosed with RSV; among them are six adults and seven children and babies in the hospitals’ intensive care units. Cottage maintains eight pediatric ICU beds, as well as 22 neonatal ICU beds, with the ability to add more if needed.
In the central area of the county, the first RSV patient entered Lompoc Valley Medical Center in November, and so far the trend has been more adult patients than children — 4 and 2, respectively — said Chief Nursing Officer Yvette Cope. None are currently in Lompoc’s ICU.
In Santa Maria, however, as many as 31 babies entered the neonatal intensive care unit at Marian Regional Medical Center due to RSV this season. A total of 145 patients with RSV received care at Marian, among them 46 adults and 68 children. Along with RSV, flu and COVID are expected to recur with force this winter season, and the hospital’s director of Internal Communications, Sara San Juan said, “Marian has the capacity to expand as needed to care for our patients.”
The common RSV symptoms are those of a cold: stuffy or runny nose, cough, headache, and low-grade fever. According to Sansum Clinic, most people are contagious for three to eight days, and symptoms often resolve after a week or two.
But a bronchial wheeze and fast breathing can also be common with RSV. Cottage Hospital stated that the symptom parents should watch for is the child struggling to breathe. That would require a visit to the emergency room or to a doctor.
Sansum Clinic’s RSV webpage advises: “In very young infants, the only symptom may be irritability, decreased activity, and breathing difficulties. For infants, preemies, and those with high-risk conditions like asthma, RSV can create enough mucus and inflammation in the lungs to result in hospitalization to provide things like extra monitoring, breathing treatments, deep suctioning, supplemental oxygen, intravenous fluids, and sometimes respiratory support in severe cases.”
Both the very young and the vulnerable are susceptible to severe RSV disease. California’s Public Health department (CDPH) reported the first death of a child younger than 5 on November 14. More recently, a child younger than 4 died in a Riverside hospital on November 21 after being ill for several days, according to media reports; the Riverside University Health System stated the death was “possibly linked to” RSV.
Among children younger than 5 years old, 100-300 deaths occur annually from RSV, according to the Centers for Disease Control. As many as 6,000-10,000 adults over the age of 65 die annually. (Comparatively, heart disease claims nearly 700,000 adults; nephritis, or kidney disease, 52,000.)
No vaccine is currently available to combat RSV, the CDPH noted in a press statement. Like many respiratory diseases, RSV spreads through coughs, sneezes, and direct contact with an infected person. It can also live for several hours on hard surfaces, like crib rails and doorknobs.
State health officials urged adults to protect young children by being vaccinated against flu and COVID-19 themselves. CDPH Director Dr. Tomás Aragón added, “It’s also important to follow basic prevention tips like frequent hand washing, wearing a mask, and staying home when sick to slow the spread of germs.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated on November 30 to include the latest RSV hospitalization numbers for Santa Barbara, Lompoc, and Santa Maria.