Spanberger Responds to Children’s Hospital Bed Shortage in Virginia, Presses HHS & CDC to Aid Frontline Providers Amid RSV Surge

Virginia Children’s Hospitals Are Reporting That More Than 90 Percent of Their Beds Are Full

HENRICO, V.A. — U.S. Representative Abigail Spanberger today pressed the leaders of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for answers as to how their organizations are preparing to help protect Virginia children and seniors, support frontline healthcare providers, and prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses during what could be a severe flu season.

Recent reports indicate that many local children’s hospitals — including in Virginia — have been at capacity for weeks due to a massive surge in patients sick with respiratory illnesses such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), the flu, and flu-like illnesses which, for the second consecutive year, have hit earlier and made children more sick than in years prior. The number of Virginians visiting the emergency department and urgent care clinics with RSV has more than quadrupled since early September — well before the usual season when respiratory illnesses circulate.

Multiple factors are likely contributing to the spread of illnesses this season, such as lower population immunity caused by a decreased spread of these viruses due to COVID-19 mitigation efforts and falling vaccination rates. From 2019 to 2022, flu vaccination rates among Virginia children between six months and four years old fell from nearly 20 percent to just over 10 percent.

In a letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and CDC Administrator Rochelle Walensky, Spanberger requested more information as to how the national disease prevention leaders plan to improve reporting, increase engagement with health providers, and raise flu vaccination rates to ensure the highest possible degree of preparedness. Additionally, she highlighted the additional strain this influx in cases is putting on frontline providers.

“I write with grave concerns that children’s hospitals in Virginia and across the country are reporting long waits for care and bed shortages as the number of patients with respiratory illnesses skyrockets. I am committed to ensuring our federal government is prepared to support Virginia’s families and frontline health care providers ahead of what could be a severe flu season,” wrote Spanberger. “As such, I request more information about how the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) plan to improve data reporting, engagement with health providers, and vaccination campaigns to ensure the highest degree of preparedness.”

Spanberger continued, “The early start of flu-like illness season, coupled with lower flu vaccine coverage rates, could strain our healthcare providers, who have already spent more than two exhausting years on the front lines battling COVID-19.”

Click here to read Spanberger’s letter, and the full letter text is below.

Dear Secretary Becerra and Administrator Walensky,

I write with grave concerns that children’s hospitals in Virginia and across the country are reporting long waits for care and bed shortages as the number of patients with respiratory illnesses skyrockets. I am committed to ensuring our federal government is prepared to support Virginia’s families and frontline health care providers ahead of what could be a severe flu season. As such, I request more information about how the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) plan to improve data reporting, engagement with health providers, and vaccination campaigns to ensure the highest degree of preparedness.

As you know, COVID-19 mitigation measures also disrupted the circulation patterns of seasonal respiratory viruses such as influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, commonly referred to as RSV, in Virginia and across the country. The decrease in these viruses’ spread has likely contributed to a lower level of population immunity and could cause more cases of severe illnesses, especially among children. This is particularly concerning because outbreaks of flu, RSV, and influenza-like illnesses often begin in children before spreading to older and more vulnerable adults.

Virginia is already experiencing an early surge of pediatric RSV cases and hospitalizations. While not as well-known as the flu, RSV is a similar illness common in infants and associated with substantial mortality among elderly individuals. The number of Virginians visiting the emergency department and urgent care clinics with RSV has more than quadrupled since early September, well before the usual start of the fall and winter seasons when RSV and respiratory illness circulate. Virginia’s experiences track with a national surge in the RSV test positivity rate and cases detected. The rise in cases has filled doctors’ offices and children’s hospitals, forcing patients to wait for care and putting additional strain on our front-line providers.

The early surge in RSV cases here in Virginia could portend a severe flu season – one for which our population is underprepared due to falling vaccination rates. The flu vaccine is an essential public health tool that prevents millions of doctors’ visits, hospitalizations, and deaths every year. Unfortunately, flu vaccination rates have fallen among Virginia’s children compared to just before the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019 in Virginia, nearly 20 percent of kids between six months and four years old had gotten the flu shot, compared to just over 10 percent in 2022. Across the country, overall flu vaccine coverage was more than 17 points lower in September 2022 compared to September 2020.

The early start of flu-like illness season, coupled with lower flu vaccine coverage rates, could strain our healthcare providers, who have already spent more than two exhausting years on the front lines battling COVID-19. For example, children’s hospitals in Virginia are reporting that more than 90 percent of their beds are full. Media reports suggest families must wait hours for an inpatient bed to open up for sick kids. The problem is not isolated to Virginia – according to healthdata.gov, about three-quarters of pediatric beds are filled nationwide.

With these concerns in mind, I respectfully request responses to the below questions:

  1. How will the CDC support local providers’ outreach and education efforts to community partners about RSV mitigation efforts and to boost flu vaccination rates?
  2. What is the status of RSV antivirals and diagnostic tests in the Strategic National Stockpile?
  3. How can Congress support addressing gaps in CDC’s influenza, RSV, and other influenza-like illness surveillance? For example, the RSV Hospital Surveillance Network currently covers only 75 counties in 12 states.
  4. How will CDC adapt benchmarks to evaluate interventions against RSV, influenza, and other influenza-like illnesses to reflect disruptions to historic patterns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic?
  5. Do HHS’s and CDC’s responses to the 2022 National Biodefense Strategy and Implementation Plan include the possibility of improved responses to outbreaks of RSV, flu, and other influenza-like illnesses?

Thank you for your leadership on this critical public health issue, and I look forward to working with you to keep our children and seniors safe during an unprecedented flu season.

— 

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