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With pediatric units full, NM hospitals collaborate and urge prevention

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University of New Mexico Children's Hospital started the week at 119% capacity, officials say, due to a concurrent surge of RSV, flu, COVID-19 and other viruses among children across the state.

Pediatric units across New Mexico are operating at or above capacity due to a simultaneous surge in COVID, flu and RSV, along with other viruses, among children. At a briefing Monday, representatives from the state’s largest hospital systems urged parents and guardians to practice prevention and at-home care when possible.

University of New Mexico Children’s Hospital Associate Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anna Duran said it’s common to see a surge in flu and RSV this time of year, but that this season is different because of upticks in COVID, parainfluenza and enterovirus.

“Because of these multiple viruses hitting all at once, many of our clinics and hospitals are really feeling the strain,” she said.

UNMH Associate Chief Nursing Officer Maribeth Thornton said the children’s hospital started the week at 119% capacity and has implemented an emergency operations center to help with coordination and repurposed rooms to treat more sick kids.

“These care spaces may not look like our traditional hospital room,” she said. “But they do allow us to provide the care that is necessary.”

While doctors with UNMH, Presbyterian Healthcare Services and Lovelace Health System said to expect longer wait times, they also said they’re working together to share resources and transfer patients for more timely treatment. Lovelace Chief Medical Officer Dr. Vesta Sandoval said this kind of collaboration is something New Mexico hospitals learned to do well during the pandemic.

The surge in RSV is showing in older children than usual. Dr. John Pederson, medical director of children’s care at Presbyterian, said that’s due to an “immunity gap,” where kids were not exposed as heavily in their first couple years.

“There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions that we had in place are playing a role in what we’re seeing right now,” he said.

Dr. Sandoval said this concurrent surge is likely to get worse this winter and that preventive measures like masking, vaccinations for COVID and flu and reducing exposure are key.

Dr. Pederson added that teaching kids how to properly wash their hands is also crucial.

“Practicing in the home setting — so that when your child is out of the home setting they are more likely to do that — is extremely important,” he advised parents and caregivers.

The doctors also emphasized that not all sick kids need to be taken in for medical care, and that treating at home when appropriate could free up hospital space. Common virus symptoms like fever and aches can be treated with Tylenol, said Dr. Duran with UNMH, and congestion with a bulb syringe.

As for when to take kids in, she said a child who’s had a fever for three days should go to primary or urgent care and a child who’s having trouble breathing, breathing quickly, or showing signs of dehydration should go to the emergency room.

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays, 5-7 p.m.). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.
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