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Health officials want parents to ask themselves: ER or pediatrician?

A common virus, not COVID-19, is driving a jump in visits to emergency rooms at Chicago children’s hospitals.

A children’s emergency room sign at Lurie Children’s Hospital
A spike in cases of the respiratory syncytial virus, commonly referred to as RSV, driving up emergency room visits, health officials say.
Provided

A burst in visits to local emergency rooms by nervous parents dealing with kids who have a common respiratory virus has prompted local health officials to issue a gentle reminder: Unless it’s a true emergency, visit your pediatrician’s office or an urgent care.

A spike in cases of the respiratory syncytial virus, commonly referred to as RSV, is driving the issue.

The virus wasn’t able to make its normal rounds of infection last winter that would have resulted in immunity because so much of the nation’s population was staying home due to the pandemic.

“Because most kids didn’t get exposed to viruses, we’re seeing both last year’s and this year’s virus illnesses in one year,” said Dr. John Cunningham, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Comer Children’s Hospital.

And this year, RSV isn’t waiting for winter. The nation is experiencing an early surge.

Visits to Comer’s emergency room are up 79% compared with prepandemic levels, Cunningham said. And despite an uptick in COVID-19 cases among kids, the increase is being driven by RSV.

The symptoms associated with RSV are similar to those of COVID-19: fever, cough and runny nose.

RSV can affect children 3 and younger more severely, Cunningham noted, and has definitely justified many emergency room visits.

But doctors are finding that most emergency room visits are not necessary, he said.

“Many of our parents are worried, so they’re coming to us in the emergency department rather than going to their primary care pediatrician,” Cunningham said.

“And this isn’t just Chicago, this is happening all over the country. It’s an unprecedented upswing and what all our ERs are seeing at the moment is an exceptional increase in viral illness among children,” he said.

State and local health officials plan to hold a news conference Wednesday to highlight the issue and how it is resulting in crowded emergency rooms with very long wait times.

“If your child is having breathing problems, obviously, they need to come to the emergency room, but if they have a viral illness with coughing and sneezing and nasal discharge and fever, they should go and see their pediatrician,” Cunningham said.

“Every child will be taken care of, but it’s important parents help us by looking at their kids and making a decision: Are they severely ill enough that they need to go to an emergency room? Most of these children do not require hospital care,” he said.

Health officials provided a list of when to visit an ER:

  • Newborns (under 2 months) with a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher
  • Severe chest pain, trouble breathing, passing out or fainting, coughing up blood
  • Severe asthma attacks
  • Severe dehydration
  • Serious allergic reactions
  • Injuries such as large and complex cuts or wounds, open or severe bone fractures, ingesting poison, serious burns
  • Sudden neurologic concerns such as changes in mental status, seizures, high fevers with headache and a stiff neck, sudden changes in the ability to speak, see, walk or move
  • Safety concerns and thoughts of harming themselves or others