Respiratory syncytial virus has already begun spreading in El Paso, but may not reach the previous year’s intensity.

In 2022 the city experienced a surge in RSV cases as early as September. RSV season typically starts in the fall and begins to peak in December.

El Paso Children’s Hospital provided numbers indicating far fewer RSV cases than this time last year. As of Oct. 19, there were 20 cases of RSV at El Paso Children’s hospital this month compared to 393 cases last October.

But a spokesperson for the Hospitals of Providence said its children’s hospital has already seen an increase in RSV cases compared to 2022.

Dr. Jeffrey Schuster, chief medical officer at El Paso Children’s Hospital, described 2022 as the year of the “tripledemic” – when flu, COVID-19 and RSV overwhelmed the health care system at the same time.

Following the nationwide spike in RSV illnesses, the Food and Drug Administration approved this year the first RSV vaccines for people over the age of 60 and for pregnant people, which can protect babies after they’re born. El Paso does not track how many people have received the RSV vaccine, a city spokesperson said.

RSV spreads through airborne droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The highly contagious virus can also spread when people touch contaminated surfaces, then touch their nose, eyes or mouth without washing their hands.

Dr. Jeffrey Schuster, pediatric cardiologist and chief medical officer at El Paso Children’s Hospital

Most people, including toddlers and babies, who contract RSV experience cold-like symptoms that don’t require a hospital visit. But babies under two years old are most at risk for severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, because their airway passages are smaller, Schuster said. It’s easier to plug the tiniest of their airways, the bronchioles, with mucus and debris, he explained.

Adults older than 60 are also more susceptible to severe illness because they have weakened immune systems, particularly if they already have a disease affecting the lungs, such as asthma or COPD.

Who should get the RSV vaccine?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the RSV vaccine for people ages 60 and older, as well as the maternal RSV vaccine for people in weeks 32 to 36 of pregnancy during September to January. 

The maternal RSV vaccine stimulates the body into creating antibodies, which then cross the placenta to the fetus. Newborns can then have protection during their first RSV season.

El Paso Children’s Hospital on Oct. 31, 2022. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The FDA also approved nirsevimab for infants, which is not a vaccine. The drug, recommended for babies entering or born during RSV season, gives infants direct monoclonal antibodies. It reduces the risk of hospitalization for RSV.

When RSV requires hospitalization

“If you’ve got a respiratory illness and you’re not having trouble breathing, the answer is to stay home,” Schuster said.

Babies born premature, babies born with heart defects or lung disease – these babies are more vulnerable to respiratory illnesses, he said. Going to work or school while sick could spread the virus to someone who is caring for a vulnerable baby.

Emergency department visitors who do not have an emergency situation can also take up beds for more vulnerable patients. Schuster recommended people visit urgent care if they’re having difficulty with cold-like symptoms.

People should go to the emergency department immediately if they have serious trouble breathing, Schuster said. Signs to spot in a child or baby could be a retraction of the skin in the neck and chest junction with every breath, or if the skin is going between the ribs or belly with every breath.

Priscilla Totiyapungprasert is a health reporter at El Paso Matters and Report for America corp member. She previously covered food and environment at The Arizona Republic. You can follow her on social...