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Respiratory infections are spiking among children, and it's not COVID


The United States is seeing a significant spike in respiratory illness among children. Pediatric hospitals and emergency departments around the country say they are inundated with sick kids. And it's not just COVID.

IBUKUN KALU: We are seeing an earlier start to our typical respiratory season. We would call it winter respiratory season. And we're seeing more kids infected with viruses from late summer into early fall and now going into the winter.

KELLY: Dr. Ibukun Kalu is with Duke Children's Hospital in Durham, N.C. She says they're seeing unusually high rates for this time of year of kids infected with viruses like RSV, also a suite of other common respiratory infections.

KALU: We're seeing rhinovirus, enteroviruses, and some of those can spread all through the year. I think the combination of ongoing COVID, as well as kids that have symptomatic respiratory illnesses from other viruses and require hospital support, is overwhelming the hospitals due to the beds we have available but also some of our staffing needs.

KELLY: And to be clear, this is just kids or are you seeing somewhat similar spikes among grown-ups, too?

KALU: The rates of infections that are occurring in kids are higher than what we're seeing adults. The reason for more severe illnesses with some of these viruses is the smaller airways in kids because the virus is getting there and cause such a high amount of inflammation, they unable to get air in. And that's why we see such severe illnesses with a virus like RSV.

KELLY: Well, so what's going on? What might be driving this?

KALU: That is - that's the question we're all trying to figure out. Our habits, ability to wear a mask, particularly early in the pandemic, and shifts in travel patterns changed how the virus spread. And a lot of kids were not in community child care settings for a long time.

KELLY: Right.

KALU: Now that we're back to relative normalcy and seeing viruses spread again, maybe some of them were dormant, maybe some kids did not have prior infections, so don't have any built-in immunity for other viruses. Or maybe they changed just a little bit and seem to be spreading faster in most of our kids. So it could be any of those where people are trying to figure out which particular reason. But, ultimately, we are seeing more infections early in the season, anticipating it might be a long-protracted season and trying to encourage everyone to do what they can to reduce spread.

KELLY: For parents, for families out there trying to figure this out, what should they look for? When is it time to take a kid to the doctor, take them to the hospital?

KALU: So kids get lots of infections. They typically would have a runny nose, a cough, they might have a fever or a change in their ability to eat or drink. Usually, most parents and caregivers can manage routine symptoms at home. It is good for you to contact your provider and talk through symptoms and be aware that if you see any of those symptoms worsen, specifically if a child is having issues breathing or is constantly throwing up or unable to drink or eat, you know, kids usually are drinking some type of nutrition...

KELLY: Yeah.

KALU: ...It would be important to ensure they get seen to assess if they need oxygen support or if they need help with maintaining their hydration.

KELLY: It sounds like - and I don't want to oversimplify in any way, but it sounds like you have a hard winter coming up in the health care industry - another one - but that common sense should prevail, and that should go without saying. But we've all been so worried about COVID, about taking care of our families, our kids. We shouldn't panic if your kid has a runny nose or a cough. Take care of them, watch the symptoms, call your pediatrician, monitor it, get help when you need it.

KALU: Exactly. We have learned a lot during the pandemic and that shared knowledge can help us here. So we're not approaching this with lots of unknowns. We do not yet know how bad this season will be. In the southern hemisphere, they did see a worse influenza season than the prior two years. So we're anticipating that we will see more infections. However, we know how to manage some of those things, and we can collectively work in preventing spread.

KELLY: Dr. Ibukun Kalu of Duke Children's Hospital, thanks so much.

KALU: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.