AUSTIN (KXAN) – As pharmaceutical companies announce their progress in developing a vaccine for respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, severe cases of the illness continue to surge around the country and in Travis County.
“We’re experiencing a pediatric crisis in our country and here in Travis County. And it’s very early in the season – we haven’t reached the peak yet,” said Dr. Desmar Walkes, the Medical Director and Health Authority of Austin Public Health.
“Our emergency rooms are seeing two or three times the volume of patients than they normally see on any given day,” she continued.
Pfizer announced Tuesday that their experimental RSV vaccine is 82% effective against severe illness in the first 90 days of a baby’s life when their mom is inoculated before the baby is due. RSV is considered the most common respiratory illness – most children will have been infected with it by the time they reach the age of two, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Anybody can get infected with the virus, but it is more likely to cause a severe infection in babies under a year old, those who are immunocompromised and older folks, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The news about the vaccine “is a great announcement and something to look forward to. But right now, we are experiencing a crisis in our pediatric emergency departments,” Walkes said.
“We really need to take steps to protect our kids that are at risk and our senior population that’s at risk for RSV,” she continued.
What can we do now?
While the RSV vaccine is not ready, there are two other viral respiratory illnesses that are circulating which have vaccines available: COVID-19 and the flu.
Walkes said it is paramount that people get these vaccines to slow the inundation of patients going to the hospital with respiratory illnesses. So far, the number of people in Travis County to get their flu and booster shots have been low, she said.
“We’re anticipating that we will continue to see a surge in these respiratory viral illness cases if we don’t get people vaccinated,” she said. “We are going to be gathering for holiday parties and festivities in the coming months. Those crowded situations present a great opportunity for virus spread,” Walkes said.
Further, people should focus on covering coughs, washing hands, and isolating those who are the most vulnerable.
Why is RSV surging now?
RSV typically sends thousands of kids to the hospital, but this year it is happening earlier than usual. That has a lot to do with the constricting and loosening of COVID-19 restrictions over the last couple of years.
Recently, since the relaxation of COVID-19 safety measures, respiratory infections are spreading easier, Walkes said.
Before recently, people were still wearing masks, staying home when sick, social distancing and using hand sanitizer, Walkes said.
“Those measures have relaxed, and now we have given free rein to those respiratory viruses that are also spread in the same manner,” she said. “They’re spreading because we’re not doing the things that we were doing.”