The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) has confirmed the first two pediatric deaths associated with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) this season. RSV is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms but can be serious and even life-threatening for infants and older adults.
First Death Confirmed in Southern Wisconsin
The first death was a young child from southern Wisconsin, as reported by DHS on December 22. No further details about the child have been released.
“We send our deepest sympathies to the family and friends grieving the loss of their loved one,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer in the DHS Bureau of Communicable Diseases, in a statement.
“RSV and other respiratory illnesses can be deadly, especially in very young children and infants. We urge parents to help protect their children through good hygiene practices like frequent hand washing, keeping sick kids home, and making sure those around them are protecting them, too.”
This marks Wisconsin’s first confirmed pediatric death from RSV this respiratory virus season, which typically runs from October through April or May.
Second Death Confirmed Hours Later
Within hours, a second RSV-related death in a child was reported in Wisconsin. Again, no details were provided about the child or where they were from.
Karen Timberlake, DHS Secretary-designee, commented:
“Our hearts go out to the families who have lost young children. While RSV leads to mild cold symptoms for most of us, it can cause severe illness and death in babies and some older adults. We all need to prevent the spread of this virus through good health habits like handwashing, covering coughs and sneezes, and keeping sick children at home.”
With two confirmed deaths so early in the RSV season, health officials are concerned about the weeks ahead.
RSV Cases Earlier and More Severe This Year
Nationwide, RSV cases began rising earlier than usual this fall. By late November, nearly every state was experiencing high or very high levels of RSV activity, according to CDC data.
Wisconsin has seen high RSV activity over the past two months as well. As of December 3, laboratory detections and outpatient visits for RSV were significantly elevated compared to prior years:
|RSV Lab Detections
|RSV Outpatient Visits
|408 higher than prior 3-year average
|1,673 higher than prior 3-year average
With RSV cases high and continuing to increase heading into the holidays, health officials say the next 6-8 weeks could see significant additional pediatric hospitalizations and deaths from RSV and other respiratory viruses like flu.
Health Officials Urge Prevention Amid Holiday Gatherings
To help prevent additional RSV-related illnesses and deaths this season, state health officials are urging families to take precautions over the upcoming holidays:
- Wash hands frequently
- Cover coughs/sneezes
- Avoid close contact with symptomatic people
- Keep sick children home from childcare/events
- Limit visitors and avoid large gatherings if you have a vulnerable infant
They also recommend ensuring everyone around vulnerable infants and older adults receive their flu and COVID-19 vaccines, as RSV is often circulating alongside these other viruses.
“The holidays should be a time of joy, not sickness, hospitalization or the tragic death of a loved one,” said DHS Deputy Secretary Deb Standridge.
“We urge all Wisconsinites to keep up the good habits that help stop respiratory viruses from spreading. If you will be around infants or older individuals with medical conditions, please get vaccinated against flu and COVID-19.”
As this RSV season continues, public health officials will monitor for any additional severe outcomes in Wisconsin and provide updates to the public. Parents should watch closely for key signs and symptoms in infants and young children and seek medical care promptly if they appear ill.
Outlook Over the Next 2 Months
With RSV activity still high and increasing in many areas, the number of severe pediatric cases and deaths may continue rising over the next 6-8 weeks.
“Early indications are that this RSV season could be worse than prior years,” commented Dr. Westergaard. Our detections began increasing earlier than usual this fall, and severe outcomes are mounting quickly now.”
He continued, “Parents and caregivers should familiar with signs of respiratory distress in infants and young children. Seeking prompt medical attention could save a child’s life this season.”
In addition to RSV risk, influenza activity has been escalating in recent weeks after a very slow start to the season. COVID-19 hospitalizations have also ticked upward again in December after declining through the fall.
The combination of these three respiratory viruses circulating simultaneously could put significant strain on hospitals over the holidays and into January. Health officials urge practicing prevention measures to slow their spread.
“With RSV, flu and COVID all increasing now, we could be in for a challenging next two months for respiratory illnesses,” said Karen Timberlake. “But our individual actions like staying up-to-date on vaccines, wearing masks indoors, and keeping sick kids home from events can help turn the trajectory. The health of our communities is in all our hands this season.”
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