Respiratory illness overwhelms hospital, causes medicine shortages


A respiratory illness is filling the hospital with cases and creating shortages of kids’ fever medicine.

Whatcom County Health Department (WCHD) said in a November 22 press release that county residents were visiting emergency rooms for respiratory illnesses at the highest rate the department’s ever seen, and four times higher than any rate in the past five years. 

Many of the respiratory illnesses have been caused by RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, which is a common virus that causes mild cold-like symptoms, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, RSV can be dangerous for older adults and infants, and is the leading cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in infants, according to the CDC.

Pediatric beds in Bellingham and across Washington are at capacity. PeaceHealth is asking people with non-emergent issues to seek care outside of PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center’s emergency department, such as visiting a primary care physician or a same-day clinic.

“Given we are at what is likely the height of the influenza and RSV seasons, we ask at this time you consider other options to assist with your non-emergency health care needs so our team can care for the most ill and vulnerable,” wrote Dr. Sudhakar Karlapudi, PeaceHealth’s Northwest chief medical officer, in a statement. “Please know that we treat everyone who visits our emergency department, but those with non-emergency needs will most likely have a longer wait time before we are able to care for you.”

Karlapudi added people with breathing difficulties should still visit the emergency room.

A nationwide shortage of the antibiotic amoxicillin is forcing health providers to prescribe alternatives. Tylenol, ibuprofen and other children’s medicine are in low quantity in Whatcom County pharmacies and customers may be asked to limit the number they purchase, according to WCHD. County health officials also said that moderate fevers don’t require medicine and won’t help children get better quicker. Most children with respiratory illnesses are able to recover at home, according to the health department.

WCHD encourages people to stay home while sick. People can prevent illness by washing their hands frequently, cleaning surfaces, avoiding sharing food and drinks, and covering themselves when coughing and sneezing. People are asked to wear masks when sick or in crowded places. Children ages 2-4 should only wear masks with adult supervision and children under 2 should not wear a mask, according to the health department.

Washington State Department of Health is also asking residents to get their flu vaccine as flu hospitalizations across the state are at their highest rates in a decade for this time of year.

“We’re again in a situation where there might not be enough hospital beds for those who need care, and this is especially concerning when we consider very young, critically ill children,” wrote Dr. Amy Harley, WCHD’s co-health officer, in a statement. “By following common sense prevention measures you, your family, and even your friends and neighbors can help make sure hospitals have beds for sick kids who need them.” 


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