Amid a surge of respiratory infections, children’s hospitals across the United States are so busy that some had to set up tents to handle patient overflow.
The viruses are partly to blame for overwhelmed hospitals and packed emergency rooms, but for some, the problem is staffing: Many hospitals have empty beds, but not the people to care for someone in them.
“We’re extremely overwhelmed,” said Dr. Rishi Lulla, director of pediatric hematology/oncology at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. “We’re doing the best that we can to try to use the resources that we have, expand where we have capacity to expand and serve the most vulnerable kids.”
Nationally, about 80% of pediatric hospital beds are occupied. But it’s much worse in certain areas: In Rhode Island, for example, beds are 99% full.
Seasonal respiratory viruses fill children’s hospitals every year, but the number of beds that are full now is well above the average.
Over the past couple years, only about two-thirds of pediatric beds have typically been in use – and that includes the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a CNN analysis of data from the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Driving much of the current need for beds at children’s hospitals is a spike in cases of RSV, which are 60% higher than at 2021’s peak. The early start to the flu season and an increase in other respiratory viruses are compounding the need for care, on top of all the usual demands like kids with broken bones or asthma attacks.
Children’s National Hospital in Washington, DC, warned last week that “this surge in illness is exacerbated by the national healthcare workforce shortages.” A child with a life-threatening emergency will not wait, the statement said, but “families who come to us with non-urgent issues will experience long waits to be seen.”
“The wait times in county emergency departments and children’s hospitals are stretching to longer they’ve ever been,” said Dr. Meghan Bernier, medical director of the pediatric intensive care unit at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Complicating the issue is that the staff shortage problem isn’t new and won’t be solved quickly. US hospitals have been dealing with it for years.
The country needs more doctors and technicians, as shortages are growing in both areas, experts say – but the lack of nurses may be the biggest gap that needs to be filled.
A 2022 analysis found that the total count of nurses in the US decreased by more than 100,000 from 2020 to 2021, the largest drop observed over the past four decades. Many who left were under the age of 35, and most worked at hospitals.
It’s a particular problem for children’s hospitals.
“The pediatric ICU specialty … is highly specialized and a difficult to recruit role in hospitals today,” Katie Boston-Leary, director of nursing programs at the American…