This 1981 photo provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows an electron micrograph of respiratory syncytial virus, also known as RSV.

A record surge of children very sick with a usually common respiratory virus are filling Maine’s largest hospitals, leading to capacity issues as flu and COVID-19 season looms.

Doctors from Maine’s largest health care networks on Friday urged parents to practice good hygiene and to bring children sick with respiratory syncytial virus infection, or RSV, to their primary care providers before the emergency room due to stretched hospital capacity.

Maine’s largest hospitals are now near or at capacity due to children with RSV, limiting their ability to take care of other sick and injured patients. Should cases continue to rise, doctors said they’re prepared to pause elective and non-emergency surgeries and convert adult hospital beds to pediatric beds to care for sick patients, especially children. 

All 87 Maine Medical Center pediatric hospital beds were full on Friday, forcing the Portland hospital — Maine’s largest — to begin boarding children in the emergency room to wait for beds to open, according to Dr. Mary Ottolini, chair of pediatrics at Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center. 

“We’ve admitted a record number of RSV patients and half of our patients admitted now have a respiratory virus and the majority of those are RSV,” Ottolini said during a press conference addressing the RSV surge on Friday. 

At Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, all 37 of the hospital’s staffed pediatric beds are full, Dr. James Jarvis, Northern Light Health’s COVID-19 response leader, reported. 

RSV is a common virus that infects the nose, lungs and breathing passages, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Its symptoms include runny nose, decreased appetite, coughing, sneezing, wheezing and fever. 

Cases are mild in most people but can be severe for infants, young children and older adults if it evolves into upper and lower lung infections, pneumonia and difficulty breathing that requires hospitalization. 

There’s no specific treatment or vaccine available yet in the U.S. for RSV. 

While most children get RSV before the age of five, many children weren’t exposed to it over the past three years due to the prevalence of COVID-19 “boxing out” other viruses, said Dr. Dora Mills, chief health improvement officer at MaineHealth. 

“RSV is like influenza where every winter we see a bunch of it for two or three weeks, but we didn’t see that over the past two to three years,” Mills said. “We now have a whole cohort of under-3-year-olds who didn’t get RSV as a regular virus they’d contract in the winter, so suddenly we have a lot more RSV circulating, a lot more kids contracting it at the same time, and more kids having it more severely.” 

Parents shouldn’t delay care if their children are especially ill, but doctors urged parents to contact their primary care providers with concerns and treatment suggestions instead of bringing them to the emergency room. 

“We need to keep our emergency rooms open for emergencies and our hospital beds open for those who are in need,” Jarvis said. 

While hospital beds are at or nearing capacity, Dr. Jonathan Wood, a pediatric intensivist at EMMC, said hospitals are also limited by the dwindling number of providers who are trained to care for infants and children, especially when hospitals continue to see a workforce shortage fueled by the strain the COVID-19 pandemic put on nurses. 

Should the rise of RSV cases continue, doctors said they’re prepared to pause elective and non-emergency surgeries and convert remaining hospital beds to pediatric beds. 

Doctors also urged parents to practice good hygiene, including frequent hand washing and coughing and sneezing into an elbow or tissue, wearing a mask in crowded indoor spaces and staying away from children if you’re sick. 

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Kathleen O'Brien

Kathleen O'Brien is a reporter covering the Bangor area. Born and raised in Portland, she joined the Bangor Daily News in 2022 after working as a Bath-area reporter at The Times Record. She graduated from...