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Respiratory virus cases impact more Minnesota kids than usual this fall

Doctors at Essentia and St. Luke's say fewer children were exposed to RSV in the last two years, making more children vulnerable to severe infection. RSV typically has the same symptoms as a cold, influenza or COVID-19.

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DULUTH — Cases of respiratory syncytial virus infection, commonly known as RSV, spiked dramatically in Minnesota in the second half of October. According to medical professionals, the Duluth area isn’t seeing as many cases as in the Twin Cities metro area, but RSV is spreading throughout the Northland region.

“We’re definitely seeing an uptick regionally in RSV cases,” said Jonathan Shultz, an emergency medicine doctor at St. Luke’s. “The state data would suggest that over the last month, the number of positive cases has about doubled, and I would say that that is roughly the trend that we’re seeing here in the Northland as well.

"We’re not seeing the rates of hospitalization that they’re seeing down in the Twin Cities. However, the rates of RSV that we’re seeing are definitely increasing.”

RSV has symptoms almost identical to most other viral infections that spread more during the late fall and winter, including the common cold, influenza and the coronavirus. A runny nose, cough, fever, decreased appetite and occasional vomiting are all typical symptoms. The illness usually lasts about a week. RSV most commonly affects infants and young children, who are more likely to develop severe symptoms and require treatment in a hospital.

“Because it is so similar to many other viral respiratory illnesses, there aren’t key differentiating features of RSV that would be readily apparent to most patients or parents,” Shultz said.


Shultz said the illness this year is affecting children more severely because many don’t have any immunity to RSV, and because of that, older children are experiencing those severe symptoms, too. RSV is typically most dangerous to premature infants, young children and babies, and children with chronic conditions. People of any age can develop RSV, but it usually has cold-like symptoms for people who have built immunity to it in the past.

Jonathan KenKnight, a pediatrician at Essentia Health, said he’s seeing more children hospitalized with RSV this year. He credits that to more children being infected with RSV than usual because many have not been exposed to it in recent years. Not being in school, as well as wearing masks in schools to prevent COVID-19 the past two years, kept RSV cases relatively low among children.

“It’s an illness that, as pediatricians, we’re used to seeing and treating, but I think as a society, we’ve kind of developed collective amnesia about winter respiratory viruses because masking worked so well to tamp those down the last couple years," KenKnight said. "You didn’t really see RSV or influenza at all, and now it’s really roaring back strong."

Pediatric hospital bed availability is still high in Northeastern Minnesota, with nearly 30% of pediatric hospital beds and 14% of pediatric intensive care unit beds available. Meanwhile, the Twin Cities metro area has 2% of pediatric hospital beds and 3% PICU beds available, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

If a child is in respiratory distress, they may need emergency medical attention. Shultz and KenKnight said the symptoms would present in children as:

  • Rapid breathing of more than 60 breaths a minute;
  • Persistent bouts of coughing that impact a child’s ability to breathe or talk;
  • Flared nostrils, grunting or wheezing; or
  • Visible rib cage or clavicle with skin pulled tight from breathing.

Susie Van Norman, a public health nurse for St. Louis County’s disease prevention and control unit, explained how to prevent the spread of RSV:

  • Cover coughs and sneezes;
  • Wear a face mask to prevent droplet spread;
  • Frequently wipe down surfaces that a sick individual comes in contact with;
  • Wash hands and stay home if you are sick;
  • Keep children home from day care or school when they have symptoms.

RSV can also lead to more severe infection, including pneumonia or bronchiolitis.
“It’s not just a kids’ disease either, anymore,” Van Norman said. “Older adults and those over 65 with chronic conditions are more at risk to get RSV than they have been in the past, and often their symptoms are a little different than young children. They still will have some of the same symptoms, but it’ll end up more like pneumonia.”

For Fay Haataja, of Carlton County, the post-COVID program at Essentia helped her overcome debilitating headaches, brain fog and long-term memory loss after more than a year of symptoms.

There are tests to determine if a person has RSV, but KenKnight said unless a child is in a hospital setting or a person is frequently in contact with an infant, it’s likely testing isn’t necessary. People should, however, continue to test for COVID-19 when experiencing symptoms to rule it out. The only treatments for RSV are to keep a child comfortable, including using Tylenol and nebulizers, Shultz said. Otherwise, it should be treated like a common cold.


“It would be really really nice if we could prevent this because it lands so many kids in the hospital every year, and it can be a deadly disease,” KenKnight said.

RSV cases have begun spiking earlier than typical this year. Usually, RSV is more likely to begin spreading in December and circulates until February, Van Norman said. Other respiratory infections are also on the rise in Minnesota, including colds and influenza A.

Van Norman said although there isn’t yet a vaccine to prevent RSV, getting vaccines for influenza and COVID-19 help build immunity and minimize severity of other viral infections, like RSV. St. Louis County, St. Luke’s, Essentia and area pharmacies offer flu and COVID-19 vaccines and boosters.

The John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon starts Sunday, Jan. 29, in Duluth.

Laura Butterbrodt covers health for the Duluth News Tribune. She has a bachelor of arts in journalism from South Dakota State University and has been working as a reporter in Minnesota and South Dakota since 2014.
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