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Experts are urging Iowans to take more precautions amid severe respiratory virus season

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Experts say Iowans should take more precautions amid severe respiratory virus season to protect those who are most vulnerable from getting seriously ill.

Respiratory virus season has started early, and experts say it's looking severe.

Hospitals in Iowa City and Des Moines are reporting high levels of kids in particular in their emergency rooms.

Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines reported seeing about double the patient volume that it normally sees at this point in the year, driven mostly by sick children.

"We're about 215% of normal," said Wendy Woods, a medical officer at Blank Children's Hospital.

"Our problem is you know when we admit large volumes during the afternoon and overnight, we don't have places to board the patients other than to keep them in the emergency room."

Blank's is not alone. Woods said during Blank's regular check-ins with regional hospitals, neighboring states like Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas are also reporting limited pediatric beds.

What’s causing this?

It's unclear.

The pandemic, and the introduction of COVID as a new respiratory virus, has really shuffled the epidemiology of the respiratory virus season, said Pedro Piedra, a professor of molecular virology and microbiology and pediatrics at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Before COVID, after kids returned to school, there would be different waves of viruses at different times. The pandemic has so far changed that, he said.

"After people really stopped doing significant amounts of masking and social distancing, and when children came back to school, it's been really a hodgepodge of viruses circulating at the same time," Piedra said.

There's also the theory of "immunity debt."

It’s the idea that because people were less exposed to viruses like RSV during the pandemic, they didn't build up immunity, which is driving up activity now.

"The one place where we believe that it's probably real is in kids that are 2, 3, 4, who would have gotten RSV, but because of masking and isolation, they didn't get it," said Theresa Brennan, the chief medical officer at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

What do parents need to know?

Experts are recommending a few things.

First, Iowans who are eligible should make sure they are vaccinated against COVID-19 and the flu.

"This year's flu vaccine formulation seems to be a good match to circulating viruses," said Sandra Fryhofer, the board chair of the American Medical Association at a press briefing last week. "It takes two weeks to build up protected antibodies, which is another reason to go ahead and get vaccinated now."

The FDA recently authorized the bivalent COVID booster shot for kids as young as 6 months old.

The most recent booster, available through Pfizer and Moderna, protects against two variants of the virus, including the omicron variant, which continues to be the dominant variant in the state.

Second, experts say Iowans should stay home if they're sick — and keep kids who are sick at home as well. Even if you or your child have mild symptoms, this will prevent spreading germs to those who are more vulnerable, such as those who are immunocompromised or are very young or old.

"It's hard to have conversations with families, when you know, their 3-week-old is going from the general [pediatrics] floor to the ICU to be intubated and put on a ventilator," Woods said. "And they're asking, 'Do you think they could have caught grandma's cold at Thanksgiving?' It's like, 'Yeah,'"

Third, experts say those who are sick should talk to their doctor about possibly getting tested for which virus they have and getting antiviral medication.

"These treatments are especially important for people who are at higher risk of complications from respiratory disease," said Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during a press call last week. "Talk to your health care provider as soon as you have symptoms so that these treatments can be started within the first few days of illness when they are most effective."

How are health care staffing shortages affecting this issue?

Not only are infection rates up, but hospitals and health care facilities are still facing staffing shortages and burnout from the pandemic.

This week, MercyOne announced two of its urgent care locations would go to virtual-only care for a day due to staffing issues.

Woods said the staff at Blank Children's hospital is working extra hours - and that extra stress takes a toll on their immune systems.

"We are seeing like an increase in the number of sick calls that we have just with this, with the same respiratory viruses that we have. They just affect us in a way that they didn't used to because we don't have the backup anymore," she said.

Woods said aside from really taking care of yourself – and your kids – this holiday season, Iowans should remember to thank their health care workers.

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter