Illinois children's hospitals struggle to keep beds open amid 'skyrocketing' influx of kids with respiratory illness

Children's hospitals in Illinois are declining transfer requests and struggling to keep beds open amid an unusually early spike in the number of children infected with enterovirus or rhinovirus, the Chicago Tribune reported Sept. 12.

"It's skyrocketed since school started," John Cunningham, MD, physician-in-chief at the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children's Hospital, told the Tribune, referring to the number of families seeking care. "This is the most challenging period we've experienced since March 2020." 

Dr. Cunningham said Comer is seeing about double the amount of kids in its emergency department each day than it normally does during this time of the year, and that many patients are admitted for about two to four days. The hospital has also seen a significant increase in transfer requests from community hospitals, many of which have closed their pediatric inpatient units in recent years.

University of Chicago Medicine officials said Comer received about 139 requests from community hospitals to transfer children there last week. This time last year, Comer was getting about 63 requests. Comer has declined about 20 percent of transfer requests over the last few weeks because of capacity issues. Community hospitals sometimes call four to five other hospitals before requesting a transfer to Comer. 

"It's not that they don't want to take them," Dr. Cunningham told the Tribune. "We're all coping with trying to find space for each of these children." 

Widespread staffing shortages have exacerbated capacity issues, especially in recent weeks, Frank Belmonte, DO, chief medical officer at Advocate Children's Hospital, told the news outlet. Advocate Children's has campuses in Park Ridge, Ill., and Oak Lawn, Ill. 

"We didn't anticipate this," Dr. Belmonte said. "This summer's been pretty typical and then all of [a] sudden, in the last two weeks, tons of kids with respiratory illness are coming into the ER." 

Many of the children developing more severe illness across Illinois children's hospitals have had asthma, according to the Tribune

The CDC on Sept. 9 issued a health advisory saying providers in several regions across the U.S. reported increases in the number of children hospitalized with severe respiratory illness. The alert said providers should be aware of a potential rise in acute flaccid myelitis, a rare polio-like complication of infection with a certain strain of enterovirus. 

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