Hospital systems across Minnesota are operating over capacity amid an unusual surge in severe respiratory illness amongst children.
Physicians with Allina Health, M Health Fairview, Hennepin Healthcare and others sounded the alarm at a press conference Monday, urging Minnesotans to wear masks, stay home when sick and take further steps to slow the spread of viruses as the holidays approach.
Dr. Robert Sicoli, assistant medical director for emergency services at Children's Minnesota in Minneapolis and St. Paul, said both the timing and severity of this year's RSV surge, which began in late September, are unusual.
"There've been days when we've had 30-40 children waiting in our emergency departments, waiting for an impatient bed," he said. "That's unprecedented."
"On top of this, as if the RSV surge wasn't enough, we've had an unprecedentedly early start to the influenza season," Sicoli added, noting how cases of influenza A are beginning to outpace RSV infections.
Sicoli said the pediatric intensive care units at Children's have been operating "over capacity" for several weeks and new strategies to deal with the surge, such as converting an ambulance bay into a patient area, are being explored.
Dr. Jill Amsberry, a pediatrician at CentraCare in St. Cloud, said the crisis is stretching well beyond the Twin Cities.
"In greater Minnesota, we're pressed with more sick children than we can manage," she said, adding children are being boarded in emergency rooms for days or being transported four-to-five hours away to the nearest available bed.
The current crisis is emerging while hospitals are facing major staffing shortages, driven by the challenges of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
"We're all working extra hours and pulling extra shifts to try and help out, but we're still having difficulty overcoming the patient volumes," said Dr. Ashley Strobel, an emergency and pediatric physician at Hennepin Healthcare.
Minnesota hospitals are also facing nationwide shortages on liquid amoxicillin and Tamiflu, forcing providers to ration the medications and use alternatives.
During Monday's press conference, Minnesota physicians and hospital leaders urged Minnesotans to be patient and show kindness if visiting an emergency department during the surge.
"Please have mercy on us," Strobel said. "We are working very hard and doing our absolute best — we are parents just like you, we are Minnesotans just like you and we want to take care of you."
Minnesota Department of Health data on Monday showed only three pediatric intensive care unit beds have been available in the metro area, on average, in the last seven days.
There's been an average of just two pediatric ICU beds available across the rest of the state, the data shows.
According to Amsberry and other physicians, one way families can help reduce the burden on Minnesota's healthcare systems is not to seek RSV testing for mild illness when there's no other needs in the health care setting.
Minnesota schools and daycares are encouraged to not require such testing, according to Dr. Andrea Singh, a pediatrician at Park Nicollet.
Singh said distress, difficulty breathing, dehydration, change in color or a significant change in energy levels are among the signs of a serious RSV infection.
Dr. Will Nicholson, president of the Minnesota Medical Association, said everyone can help prevent burnout of healthcare workers by wearing masks, staying home when sick, getting vaccinated and washing hands.
"Together, we can prevent a lot of this illness by working as a team and doing the stuff we all know is effective," he said.