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Children are flooding into NJ hospitals. A wave of respiratory disease cases is filling pediatric beds.

New Jersey hospitals are filling up with children who are coughing and struggling to breathe.

But it’s not COVID-19. Or even the flu.

An outbreak of viral respiratory infections is sending children to emergency rooms across the state. The biggest culprits are enteroviruses and rhinoviruses as well as a few cases of RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), all of which usually produce cold symptoms.

But in severe cases, they can cause respiratory distress.

“Some of the intensive care units are at capacity,” said Dr. Uzma Hasan, division director of pediatric infectious diseases at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, part of RWJBarnabas Health.

Another school year has just begun, helping viruses to spread, and already the wave of respiratory disease cases is filling children’s hospital beds. The spike in infections has also been helped by the easing of masking and other measures against COVID-19, experts say.

Doctors at RWJBarnabas Health are seeing a sharp increase in pediatric cases of enterovirus and rhinovirus. Typically, these viruses cause only mild symptoms. But they can sometimes be serious, especially for people with asthma and certain underlying conditions.

“We’re starting to see our ERs and our floors and our pediatric intensive care units (with) a lot of these kids over the last few weeks,” Hasan said Wednesday.

She said it seems to be a national trend. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an alert earlier this month warning of enterovirus D68, a rare but serious respiratory infection in children that can cause shortness of breath and progress to acute flaccid myelitis, a neurological condition that can lead to muscle disorders. weakness and even paralysis.

The state Department of Health also issued a notice to pediatricians and hospitals last week warning of increased enterovirus and rhinovirus activity in recent weeks. He asked doctors to be on the lookout for AFM, which is often preceded by enterovirus D68 disease.

“The good news is that the vast majority will have mild disease,” Hasan said. “Those who are hospitalized seem to get better quite quickly.”

Cooper University Hospital in Camden has also reported an increase in pediatric respiratory cases, a spokeswoman said.

The enterovirus seems to increase every two years, according to Hasan.

“And this year we’re seeing a significant increase,” she said.

Hasan noted that 2020 was an outlier with a particularly low number of respiratory infections due to the pandemic prevention measures in place – measures that have now largely disappeared.

“The state monitors and monitors hospitalizations and pediatric intensive care unit counts across the state on a daily basis,” a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Health said in a statement Wednesday. “The Department is also planning a call with hospitals to assess pediatric capacity.”

Despite the wave of cases, much has been learned from the pandemic, according to Hasan.

“We plan to deal with those surges, coming up with some kind of flow plans to accommodate the most children,” she said.

While several respiratory viruses are circulating, enterovirus appears to be the main driver of new cases.

“Enterovirus is what is kind of the predominant virus right now,” Hasan said. “We are starting to see a small uptick in RSV. Flu – we haven’t seen overwhelming numbers.

But that could change in the weeks and months to come. She noted that the Australian flu season – a possible precursor to the US season – showed an unusually high number of cases.

“So we expect the number of flu cases to be high this year,” she said.

Hospitals want to get the message out to parents — and encourage proper hygiene measures and vaccinations — as Hasan pointed out that some children are at higher risk.

“We know that certain high-risk populations are at risk of severe disease,” she said, “and those are children who have asthma, children who have underlying chronic lung disease. Children with neurological disorders will often have a serious illness. Children who have congenital heart disease may have a serious condition – so they are already on our radar.

At Cooperman, she said some children come into the emergency room struggling to breathe.

“Children who come to the emergency room, yes, they have signs of breathing difficulties, which is why they end up being treated with respiratory treatments,” Hasan said. “Sometimes they’re put on steroids if they have asthma, and they usually end up requiring hospitalization and sometimes ICU admission if they’re in distress.”

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Spencer Kent can be reached at skent@njadvancemedia.com.

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