Kristen Schenk when she was waiting with her newborn at the pediatrician’s office. Credit: Provided

CHICAGO — Kristen Schenk’s newborn baby started struggling with congestion when he was about a week and a half old. Her husband initially chalked it up to being a cold.

But soon Schenk noticed the infant was having trouble breathing and “working really hard to get the oxygen he needed,” she said. Knowing that was a symptom that required higher attention in newborns, she called the baby’s pediatrician. 

“We called to be safe and then they had him come in,” said Schenk, of Jefferson Park. “In the pediatrician’s office, his oxygen saturations were down in the eighties.”

Schenk said her baby ultimately was diagnosed with respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. The virus has been unseasonably rampant in the Chicago area, according to medical professionals and parents.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, RSV is a common respiratory virus that causes mild, cold-like symptoms. The virus can be especially serious for infants and older adults and is the most common cause of inflamed small airways in the lung and pneumonia in infants one year old or younger in the United States.

Dr. Melissa Manrique, a Lurie Children’s pediatrician at Northwestern Hospital and Central DuPage Hospital, said she is seeing a large volume of pediatric patients either sick with RSV or other common respiratory viruses like the common cold or flu.

“We would typically see RSV cases [peak] in December or January,” Manrique said. “So this has been moved much more into the fall.”

The case rate for RSV in October and November is typically less than 13 percent, with the typical seasonal period being from mid-November to the end of March, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health. As of Nov. 4, about 20 percent of nearly 3,900 patients tested positive for the virus, with the positivity rate increasing by nearly a full 1 percent over the previous week alone — however, test positivity for RSV fell to about 17 percent as of Nov. 10.

Symptoms of RSV bear a lot of resemblance to the common cold or flu, Manrique said. Patients may have a fever, congestion or a runny nose.

“RSV seems to kind of get worse around that kind of day three to five of illness [with] increased secretions, having a lot of nasal congestion, runny nose, and then it kind of goes into the small airways that can cause wheezing and difficulty breathing,” Manrique said. “This is particularly hard on children that are three and under because their noses and nasal passages and airways are much smaller to begin with.”

Manrique said more RSV cases overall mean less available staff and longer wait times in the emergency department or the doctor’s office.

Schenk said she waited with her newborn at the pediatrician’s office for six hours before being sent straight to an open children’s ward hospital room at Lutheran General Hospital in suburban Park Ridge. 

“But it’s scary to have a newborn who’s two weeks old and back in the hospital for something that is all over the news right now and sounds really scary,” Schenk said. “And that you know is a possibility.”

Manrique said wheezing is a common symptom of RSV, though only a third of patients benefit from prescribed inhalers. She said the most effective course of treatment at home is sucking out secretions from children’s noses as much as possible and providing Tylenol to treat fevers when needed.

“And we use oxygen as needed when they’re required to come into the hospital,” Manrique said.

Schenk said she also has a 4-year-old in preschool and a 2-year-old in day care. The Mayfair preschool has sent notices for COVID-19 but not for RSV, and the couple didn’t receive any notices from the Edgebrook day care, either. She said Thursday her baby didn’t have to be intubated and is feeling better overall.

“I’m grateful for the care that we got and that we took him in when we did and grateful that he’s come out on the other side OK for now,” Schenk said.

While Schenk said she didn’t have to wait in the emergency department’s waiting room, her husband had to walk through it to bring her some food and clothes during her stay.

“And it was overflowing with kids of all ages and people sitting in the hallways and stuff,” Schenk said. “So I just couldn’t have imagined, you know? If we had to have done that, we would’ve done it, but it just seemed very miserable for those families.”

Little Italy resident Kevin Koll said his five-month-old son landed in the emergency room before being diagnosed with RSV, among other viruses. He said the baby started to have sudden congestion into the evening and, by 9 p.m. that night, his wife took the infant to the Lurie Children’s Hospital emergency department while he stayed behind with his three year old daughter.

Koll said he thought his son and wife “would be in and out” of the hospital, but the reality was the opposite. Nurses did a triage exam for the baby in the waiting room and determined the infant wasn’t in serious distress.

“But my wife was in the waiting room until about two o’clock in the morning,” Koll said.

Koll said his wife was at her physical limit by then and ended up returning home with the baby without being seen by emergency doctors. First thing the next morning, Koll took his son to the pediatrician and a nasal swab determined the baby had not only RSV, but cold and an adenovirus.

Koll said the doctor prescribed a steroid for the baby, used a humidifier as part of treatment and kept a close watch on him. Luckily, he said, things were better by the second night and the symptoms were manageable. 

“The scariest part was going to the ER and not really being able to be seen,” Koll said.

Manrique said she recommends those with children 3 years old and younger to encourage a lot of hand washing, masking and isolating when possible — even if it comes to keeping infants at home from family gatherings.

“If you have the ability to keep them home … that will help prevent the spread,” Manrique said.

Schenk said she encourages parents to reach out to their child’s pediatrician with any concerns they have in the meantime. She also urges people to keep washing their hands and wear masks in public if they are concerned about little ones at home.

“I could beat myself up over what we didn’t do,” Schenk said. “Did we not have our kids clean their hands enough? Was there some time we missed wearing a mask and we should have had the two year old masked in the grocery store? I think it’s just so rampant right now and so contagious that getting your kids, obviously, the help they need is the most important thing and … just being with them through that process and not seeing yourself as having done something really awful to expose them to it is important, too.”

Schenk expressed her gratitude to the medical professionals “who are in the trenches right now,” working overtime with crowded wards and also being at risk for infection. 

“I just would encourage parents to let them know how much their care and compassion means to families, too, during this time,” Schenk said. “Because they’re experiencing difficult conditions and challenges as they care for all of these little humans who are battling all of these viruses.”

Koll echoed a similar sentiment for his son’s pediatrician and school staff.

“It’s just the reality that a lot of respiratory viruses are circulating now,” Koll said.

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