Wisconsin prepares for rising respiratory illness among children
Teen boy getting a vaccine | Photo CDC
Rising respiratory illness rates — including an unseasonably early spike of respiratory syncytial virus — among children in Wisconsin is a cause of concern, according to state health officials.
Tom Haupt, a respiratory disease epidemiologist and DHS’ influenza surveillance coordinator, spoke about the increasing rates of RSV, flu and COVID-19 along with other illnesses at a press briefing Wednesday.
Respiratory syncytial virus — or RSV — a common illness that causes mild, cold-like symptoms in adults, can develop into more serious cases of bronchiolitis or pneumonia in young children.
Haupt said Wisconsin is currently averaging around 800 cases of RSV each week, numbers that aren’t typically seen until January. The early, high rate of infection is in line with national trends that are pushing hospitals to capacity in some areas.
“Why it’s been so much sooner this year than last year — we really don’t know the answer,” Haupt said, adding that there are some theories floating around. “It could be that the history of when we see these viruses has changed because of the COVID vaccine, COVID, the pandemic.”
The approaching flu season is also being closely monitored.
Haupt said current flu rates — averaging around 90 cases a week — are relatively low, but steadily increasing across the state. “We expect that it’ll reach the acceleration phase within the next few weeks,” Haupt said, adding that they can’t predict what the severity and length of the flu season this year.
Haupt said that although public health officials can’t yet determine the efficacy of the flu vaccine, they are “cautiously optimistic” it will improve from last year’s vaccine.
COVID-19 cases of late have been slowly diminishing in Wisconsin, but experts are preparing for a potential winter resurgence. With this in mind, Haupt said they are also preparing for rises in related illnesses like multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, a COVID-19 associated illness.
MIS-C is a condition where different body parts can become inflamed, including the heart and lungs. It typically presents itself in children who have had COVID-19 or were exposed to others who had COVID-19, according to the CDC, though the exact cause is unknown. Infections in children tend to be serious and lead to hospitalization.
DHS has tracked 200 cases of this COVID-19-associated illness in Wisconsin since 2020 through August of this year. Spikes over the last two years occurred between November and February with 72 cases occurring during this time frame in 2020 and 58 in 2021.
For September and October of this year, Haupt said there have been around four or five additional cases, though the data hasn’t been updated on the DHS website yet.
Haupt said the COVID-19 vaccine can lessen the chance of a child coming down with MIS-C, though current vaccine rates are low for young kids. According to DHS data, 10% of children under the age of 5 and 32% of children aged 5-11 have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Despite regional trends and cautious attitudes, Haupt was doubtful there would be a widespread return to masking this fall as a mitigation tactic.
“I don’t anticipate there will be any masking mandates, but we certainly want to keep the masking on the table,” Haupt said. “Certainly if parents or the child was not feeling well, the parents can certainly mask, especially if they have to take that child out to the doctor.”
Instead of masks, Haupt emphasized the importance of personal hygiene and good health practices like washing your hands and getting vaccinated to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and the flu.
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