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Oklahoma Sees Spike In Respiratory Virus Among Children

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The symptoms are familiar - fever, runny nose, coughing, trouble breathing - but we're not talking about COVID. Doctors in many states are seeing an unexpected spike in children contracting another respiratory virus. It's called RSV, and it normally emerges in colder months, which makes its presence this summer troubling. Oklahoma is one of the states that's seen a big rise in pediatric RSV cases. And Dr. Cameron Mantor is chief medical officer of Oklahoma Children's Hospital in Oklahoma City.

Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CAMERON MANTOR: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.

SHAPIRO: Does this look like what you would expect to see in the winter? Is it worse than that? I mean, paint a picture for us.

MANTOR: So, no, it's fairly similar to what we see in the winter. We have patients that are in the hospital, particularly young children who can get quite ill, be in the ICU, be on the ventilator, have true respiratory failure from this virus. Currently, when we look at the recent spikes, it's not quite to the percent positive that we have seen at our highest peaks in the winter times, but it's getting very close.

SHAPIRO: I know it's been a grueling 18 months of the pandemic. Do you have the nursing and medical staff to attend to this spike in pediatric patients?

MANTOR: It is a concern. Staffing is unquestionably a concern. There are days when we can't fill all of our physical beds because we simply do not have enough nurses. There are days when we have had to transfer patients away from our emergency room, even out of state. It happens very rarely, but it's taking constant diligence. And there's no question that nursing staffing is a concern of ours right now.

SHAPIRO: This summer spike in RSV cases is happening in many parts of the country - Texas, Florida, Louisiana. What's your best guess for why?

MANTOR: You know, I was talking to one of our infectious disease physicians just the other day, asking them exactly this question. And as we talked about it, we thought, OK, what's different? What we do know is that RSV is an incredibly common virus that adults have but don't get sick from, but it doesn't prevent us from transferring it to our kids. And so we're typically a normal vector for RSV.

So we think back before June, and what were we doing? And we were really doing a pretty good job of masking, and all of that prevents the spread of these respiratory viruses. And then we saw that the COVID numbers started to go down, so we unmasked and we got together. And we think that, OK, now we're out there spreading the virus, and that's what's happening

SHAPIRO: When you've already got this spike in RSV cases, Oklahoma City schools are scheduled to begin the new school year on Monday, and the state will not allow schools to require masks. So what's your concern about RSV potentially spreading among students in the new academic year?

MANTOR: There's no question. It happens in the wintertime. And with the number of cases that we're seeing today, that's a great concern of ours. We know that respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a typical respiratory virus, just as is the coronavirus. And they are spread like normal respiratory viruses. And when kids get amongst themselves and are unmasked, they're going to spread the virus.

SHAPIRO: What advice can you give parents who want to protect their kids from RSV?

MANTOR: So it's - and I'll even include RSV and COVID. It's sort of the same thing. They're both spread in the same way. So parents, if you feel like you've got a cough or cold, protect your kids by either not being around them as best you can or just wear a mask. Wash your hands is very, very important. COVID is the same way, but for adults, we have the ability to vaccinate. So you can absolutely protect your kids by going and getting vaccinated.

And then lastly, when your kids go to school, if they're ill, you know, maybe it's better to keep your kids home. Or if they are well and they're going to go to school, there's no reason that parents can't ask their child to proactively wear a mask. They're used to it now. It's quite common.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Cameron Mantor is chief medical officer of Oklahoma Children's Hospital in Oklahoma City.

Thanks a lot.

MANTOR: Thank you, Ari. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.