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With respiratory illnesses spreading among children more widely and earlier than in previous years, hospital leaders and medical experts say pediatric hospital beds across the state are in short supply.
After two years of mild flu seasons — a result of mitigation strategies to limit the spread of COVID-19 — medical experts say the number of children developing respiratory illnesses is already much higher this year, leading to more visits to health care centers and increasingly strained resources to treat those children.
Experts say the strain stems from overburdened hospital systems still reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and a shortage of medical providers.
Dr. Gerald Stagg, a pediatrician working in Mount Pleasant, said cases of respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV, and an earlier flu season have added pressure to hospital systems on top of other respiratory illnesses caused by COVID-19 and other viruses.
“I’ve been doing this for 42 years and I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” Stagg said of the number of children needing treatment for respiratory illnesses this year.
With the higher rates of respiratory illnesses, Stagg said not only are hospitals filling up, but clinics like his are having trouble keeping up with the huge uptick in visits from children with the flu.
Stagg said it’s become more difficult over the last two months to find beds in larger medical systems for sick children who require higher levels of care than what rural hospitals are able to provide.
“We’ve had to even send kids to Arkansas or Louisiana from our Texas facility because we couldn’t find a bed,” Stagg said.
He added that the shortage of hospital beds is a risk to children with serious illnesses that are not respiratory because there isn’t sufficient space in intensive care units for them.
Carrie Kroll, the vice president of advocacy, public policy and political strategy at the Texas Hospital Association, said the shortage of pediatric beds is a workforce issue. Hospital systems are still dealing with staffing shortages after droves of nurses and other hospital workers, suffering from pandemic-related burnout, retired or left the field.
“A bed is a bed. If it doesn’t have anyone to staff it, you can’t put a kid in it,” Kroll said.
Hospitals were managing with limited staff, Kroll said, but the surge in respiratory illnesses and the increased demand for pediatric care are now straining hospital systems. Many medical experts worry the problem will only get worse as cases of the flu, COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases will likely increase during the winter.
Stacy Wilson, president and CEO of the Children’s Hospital Association of Texas, said in an emailed statement to The Texas Tribune that an early flu season and a stark increase in RSV cases have resulted in longer wait times at emergency rooms, strained medical staff and fewer available beds.
At Driscoll Children’s Hospital in Corpus Christi, the number of visits doubled last month because of a high number of viral illnesses, Wilson said.
“El Paso Children’s Hospital has seen a 369% increase in RSV cases since August, which is stretching limited beds and personnel,” Wilson said. “Similarly, Covenant Children’s Hospital in Lubbock has been at capacity during the last few weeks with these viruses.”
She added that this year’s flu strain will be strong enough to require inpatient care for some children.
But not all parts of the state are facing a shortage of hospital space for children.
Dr. Iván Meléndez, the Hidalgo County health authority, said his region has enough beds and resources to meet the needs of the community at the moment.
Meléndez did warn that this year could have significantly more cases of the flu than previous ones. Federal health data released Friday reported 880,000 cases of influenza and 360 flu-related deaths nationally. The last time the country saw similar rates of the flu was in 2009. And flu season has just started; it generally spans from October to May.
Earlier this month, Hidalgo County reported one of the first deaths of a child due to the flu this season.
“We're thinking this may be the third since the turn of the century of being a ‘high-flu’ year,” Meléndez said.
He said the prevalence of the flu this year is an unintended consequence of masking and isolating during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As a community, worldwide, we didn’t develop those antibodies that are usually present in the community at some level to protect people,” he said.
To address the surge of respiratory illnesses, Meléndez and other medical experts strongly recommended vaccinations against the flu and COVID-19.
Wilson also urged parents not to seek emergency care for non-emergency medical conditions, like routine testing and mild symptoms, to avoid clogging up hospitals and clinics.
Disclosure: The Texas Hospital Association has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.