Hospitals treating RSV outbreak 'like a COVID lockdown' as they introduce PPE, visitor restrictions amid rampant spread

Hospitals nationwide are introducing measures in a bid to control the rampant spread of the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which has left them overwhelmed with sick children.

In recent times New Zealand has recorded a rapid upsurge in cases of RSV, a flu-like illness characterised by a runny nose, fever, cough and short periods without breathing, also known as apnea. 

Starship Children's Hospital in Auckland is currently postponing surgeries to make room for the influx of infants suffering from the virus. Middlemore Hospital in the city's south is also struggling with a surge in admissions, while Waitakere Hospital in the west is seeing queues snaking out its doors.

Meanwhile in Christchurch, the hospital's neonatal ICU is operating over capacity, while District Health Boards (DHBs) in the Wellington region are also battling to accommodate a dramatic spike in RSV infections. Other hospitals nationwide are limiting childrens' visits in a bid to prevent further transmission. 

Speaking on The Project on Tuesday night, Gower floated the idea that a "short, sharp" lockdown could once again prove effective at preventing the transmission of a tricky virus - just as it did during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Quickly putting my medical hat on, my idea is to call on Jacinda [Ardern] and Ashley [Bloomfield] for a short, sharp level 4 for all toddlers in New Zealand," Gower said.

"Just lockdown the toddlers?" co-host Jeremy Corbett quipped. "Interesting solution, Paddy - maybe stick to your day job."

But despite the perceived absurdity of the idea, hospitals are currently introducing measures in a bid to prevent further transmission. 

Speaking to The Project, Mai FM radio host K'Lee spoke out about her infant daughter Honour's battle with RSV. She said staff at the overrun children's ward were dressed in personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks, with restrictions in place for visitors.

"They're treating it very much like the COVID lockdown," K'Lee said. "It's just the reality of what RSV can do."

Director of Provider Services at Auckland District Health Board, Dr Mike Shepherd, told RNZ that Starship Children's Hospital is seeing record numbers of tamariki in its emergency department, many of whom are presenting with respiratory illnesses.

He said to prevent the spread of infection within the hospital, visitors are currently limited to only parents and caregivers. 

"Tamariki under the age of 14 years (including brothers and sisters) are unable to visit tamariki staying at Starship at this time," Dr Shepherd said. "We are having to postpone some planned admissions to hospital for surgeries and medical procedures to make room for the increase in acute patients."

Lakes Hospital in Rotorua has also restricted visitation, and is currently only allowing parents and caregivers to visit patients. 

Meanwhile, the Auckland Regional Public Health Service has advised parents to keep children who are presenting symptoms such as cough, fever, headache, sore throat, runny nose, vomiting and diarrhoea away from others. Parents and caregivers are urged to keep sick and symptomatic children at home until they have been completely well for at least 24 hours.

People are also asked to cover their coughs and sneezes and practise good hand hygiene - public health measures that became second nature last year as New Zealand battled its outbreak of COVID-19.

Medical Officer of Health at Toi Te Ora Public Health, Dr Jim Miller, also advised parents to practice good nutrition, including breastfeeding, to boost babies' immune systems. He also stressed the importance of keeping the home warm and dry.

"The national and regional alert level restrictions and other physical distancing measures, as well as good hygiene practices in relation to COVID-19 since last year, seem to have had a flow-on effect in preventing other respiratory infections likely including RSV," he said.

"We may be seeing an increase in RSV and other viral infections this year as people are once again interacting in closer proximity which leads to easier transmission."

Medical Director of The Royal NZ College of GPs, Dr Bryan Betty, echoed this sentiment. Speaking to The Project on Tuesday night, he said experts believe the dramatic spike in RSV cases among infants and young children can be attributed to low immunity.

"The younger kids, in particular - those aged one to two - are getting hit particularly [badly] by the virus this year because we think their immunity is down because they didn't get it last year," he explained.

"Last year, because of lockdown, we saw no RSV in the community. RSV comes in from overseas, it gets imported by planes. So last year, when we had lockdown and we had no one coming into the country, we saw no RSV - we had no colds, we had no flu. This year, with the opening of the border with Australia, it's come back into the country."

He reiterated that RSV is a common illness and can also affect older children and adults, who will typically present cold-like symptoms.

Dr Betty added that while the majority of cases are classified as mild to moderate, parents and caregivers should immediately seek medical advice if their child stops drinking, presents a high temperature, or experiences difficulty with breathing.

"Take them to a GP or after-hours centre," he said.

However, Dr Betty's advised that RSV should not be stopping daycare attendance - but echoed calls to keep sick children at home.

"I wouldn't particularly stop my child from going to childcare at this time of the year. RSV is around, it's one of those things that's there - but if your child is sick, keep them at home."