Illinois hospitals have been so full with pediatric patients that the availability of intensive care beds for kids has hovered around just 6% for the past “few weeks,” an Illinois Department of Public Health spokesperson said on Monday.

IDPH had previously sounded alarm bells to medical providers late last month, sending a list of other, out-of-state pediatric ICUs where young patients can be transferred if all the beds in the state ever end up full.

The cause of the full pediatric ICU beds?

An early spike in cases of RSV, a respiratory illness that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Normally, the virus clears up on its own — much like a case of the common cold would — but it can cause serious complications like pneumonia in infants and older adults.

RSV is not uncommon and health care authorities say most children will get the virus before they’re 2 years old. But a Bloomington-Normal pediatrician said the trend has been toward older children having more serious issues with the virus.

“What we’ve been seeing over the past month or so is that our (emergency room) volumes have increased: Kids are presenting to the emergency department and they’re working harder to breathe. We’re testing them for RSV — and they’re coming back positive,” Carle Health’s Dr. Aaron Traeger told WGLT.

There is no cure for RSV; the care that a pediatric patient would need or receive while hospitalized, depending on their individual situation, would be supportive care.

Data provided by the health care system was not broken down by age, but it did bear out the patient increase Traeger mentioned: In October, 70 patients who came to the ER tested positive for RSV — an increase of 55 from September.

As of late last week, 20 Carle BroMenn Medical Center patients have tested positive for RSV so far this month.

OSF Healthcare spokesperson Libby Allison said that as of Friday, 23 patients currently at OSF Children’s Hospital in Peoria have tested positive for RSV.

“Because of the bed shortages, we are having to send kids outside of our community,” said Traeger. “We have patients that are in St. Louis and Springfield and Chicago.”

There are fewer than 300 pediatric intensive care unit beds across the state — and the number could fluctuate based on hospital staffing. Traeger said the current bed shortage is “tough” because of staffing shortages, plus the fact that pediatric units tend to be smaller since “kids don’t get sick that much — generally.”

What’s playing out in Illinois isn’t that different from national trends, according to CDC health officials who hosted a news conference last week on this year’s viral season.

“RSV activity continues to increase nationally. RSV (cases) are increasing in all… regions, except… the southeast and the south central parts of the United States,” said Dr. Jose Romero, director of the CDC’s Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

Romero said the national spike in cases prompted CDC officials to hold the news conference because “people have a lot of questions and we want to answer the questions that are out there.”

“We want to… reassure the American public that there are ways to prevent this,” he said.

And that’s really the message that health officials who spoke with WGLT said they want to underscore: To an extent, it’s possible to prevent an overexertion on the health care system.

For RSV in particular, Traeger said hand washing remains vitally important, since the virus is transmitted via touch.

“You can always tell who is really good about washing hands in the family because the kids all get it, dad gets it and mom doesn’t. Why doesn’t mom get it? Well, she washes her hands,” he said. “The paramount for prevention is really handwashing. You really have to spend time washing your hands.”

McLean County Health Department communicable disease supervisor LaNell Greenberg said public health authorities have been promoting its flu shot and COVID-19 vaccine clinics, as usual, but this time with the intention of preventing a “tripledemic.”

“We just want to get as many people in as we can because it really helps you take care of your health, it keeps you out of the hospital and it keeps you out of the doctor’s office,” she said. “You really want to protect the little ones — and I think sometimes people forget about that.”

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