Children flock to hospitals in New Jersey. Pediatric beds are filled with a series of cases of respiratory disease.

Hospitals in New Jersey fill up with kids coughing and struggling to breathe.

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

An outbreak of viral respiratory infections sends babies to emergency rooms across the state. The biggest culprits are enteroviruses and rhinoviruses, as well as several cases of RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), all of which usually cause cold-like symptoms.

But in severe cases, they can cause respiratory failure.

“Some intensive care units are fully operational,” said Dr. Uzma Hasan, director of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, part of RWJBarnabas Health.

Another school year has just begun to help spread viruses, and a wave of respiratory disease cases is filling children’s hospital beds. Experts say the increase in infections was also aided by mitigating cloaking and other measures against COVID-19.

Doctors at RWJBarnabas Health are seeing a sharp increase in the incidence of enteroviruses and rhinoviruses in children. Typically, these viruses only cause mild symptoms. But they can be severe at times, especially in people with asthma and certain underlying medical conditions.

“We’re starting to see our emergency rooms, our floors, and our pediatric ICU (with) the large number of these babies in the last few weeks,” Hasan said Wednesday.

This appeared to be a national trend, she said. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning earlier this month against enterovirus D68, a rare but serious respiratory infection in children that can cause shortness of breath and develop into acute flaccid myelitis, a neurological condition that can cause muscle weakness and even paralysis.

The State Department of Health also issued a recommendation last week to pediatricians and hospitals warning of increased enterovirus and rhinovirus activity in recent weeks. Doctors were asked to look 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 go to the hospital recover quickly.”

Cooper University Hospital in Camden also reported an increase in cases of respiratory disease in children, a spokeswoman said.

According to Hasan, enterovirus appears to grow every few years.

“We are seeing a significant increase this year,” she said.

Hasan noted that 2020 was an outlier with a particularly low number of respiratory infections due to pandemic preventive measures in place – measures that largely no longer exist.

“The state monitors and watches a daily inventory of hospitalizations and pediatric intensive care units across the state,” a New Jersey Department of Health spokeswoman said Wednesday. “The department is also planning to interview hospitals to assess pediatric capacity.”

According to Hasan, despite the wave of cases, the pandemic has learned a lot.

“We plan to deal with these spikes by coming up with something like flow plans to accommodate more children,” she said.

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

“Enterovirus is the dominant virus these days,” Hasan said. “We are starting to see a slight increase in the RSV. Flu – we haven’t seen overwhelming numbers.

But that may change in the coming weeks and months. She noted that the flu season in Australia – a possible precursor to the season in the US – has shown an unusually high number of cases.

“So we predict the flu counts will be high this year,” she said.

Hospitals want to get the message across to parents – and encourage adequate hygiene and vaccination measures – as Hasan has stressed that some children are at greater risk.

“There are high-risk populations that we know will be at risk of severe disease,” she said, “and these are children with asthma, children with chronic lung disease. Children with neurological disorders often suffer from severe illness. Children with congenital heart disease can suffer from severe disease – so they are already on our radar. ‘

In Cooperman, she said that children with difficulty breathing entered the emergency room.

“Children who come to the emergency room have signs of difficulty breathing, so they end up being treated with respiratory therapies,” Hasan said. “Sometimes they are given steroids if they are asthmatics and they usually require hospitalization and sometimes ICU admission if they are seriously ill.”

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Spencer Kent can be reached in sent@njadvancemedia.com.

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