DENVER — U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra visited Colorado Monday to hold a roundtable discussion with pediatric experts about the "tripledemic" the state is currently facing.
The tripledemic refers to influenza, RSV and COVID-19, which are all on the rise among Colorado children.
During the discussion, medical staff told Becerra that through November, the number of patients seeking care at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora was 30% higher than the busiest day of a typical respiratory season, which is historically January through March.
“This respiratory season is very early and quite severe and is unlike anything we've ever seen before. While we are finally starting to see some decrease in RSV volumes, Children's Hospital Colorado is still experiencing record volumes of patients with respiratory illness in our emergency department's inpatient units and intensive care units,” said Dr. Sam Dominguez, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the hospital.
While RSV cases appear to be on the decline in Colorado, influenza cases are on the rise. Children's Hospital Colorado medical staff told Becerra they are hopeful that RSV has peaked in Colorado, but they remain cautious in their approach.
Others told the secretary the volume of patients coming in is unlike anything the hospital has experienced before.
Dr. Suchitra Rao, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children's Hospital Colorado, told Becerra that in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, pediatric medical staff were being trained by adult hospitals to step in and help handle the surge of patients. Now, the opposite is the case because of staffing challenges.
“Now the tables are turned. We actually have our pediatricians are training adult physicians to help take care of pediatric patients in some of their hospitals to try and decrease some of that capacity,” Rao said.
Medical experts told Becerra antibiotic shortages have been a challenge in addressing the issue, and that COVID-19 and flu vaccinations for younger patients have dropped off this year, contributing to the problem.
For his part, Becerra said the HHS is here to help Colorado in whatever way it can, and that it is working on funding from Congress to best address the tripledemic.
“We haven't yet received a particular request from most parts of the country for any particular product or assistance. And so I'm here to hear if we need to do something, please tell us,” Becerra said.
A mother’s plea
While health experts discuss how to handle the tripledemic, one Colorado mother is warning parents to take their kid to the doctor as soon as they notice trouble.
Yeva Aleksanyan’s son was admitted to Children’s Hospital two years ago when he was just 15 months old for a severe case of RSV.
“The night before, he was just fine, playing happily. And then suddenly on December 16, he started to have difficulty breathing,” Aleksanyan said. “He was breathing with his belly, breathing fast. So we immediately took him to his pediatrician's office, where we were realized that his oxygen saturation levels were dropping.”
The family was given an oxygen tank for the child and told to take him to the emergency room. He was then transferred to the pediatric intensive care unit, where he was intubated for 23 days.
“All of this happened, it was so fast. We didn't have time to realize what was going on,” Aleksanyan said.
More than a week later, the family was called in to a conference room to speak with medical staff, who said the 15-month-old was dying and there were only a few options left to try to save him. But those options came with risks.
The family was also told to not leave their son’s room for more than 20 minutes at a time if they wanted a chance to say goodbye to him.
“I remember us going, there is a little chapel in Children's Hospital, and going and praying and kneeling and crying about, like, asking for help,” Aleksanyan said.
The family decided to give the medical team the go-ahead for more treatment, and on Christmas Day, the test results started to show improvements.
However, two years later, Aleksanyan’s son is still dealing with the aftermath of RSV and some long-term health impacts. She imagines it could take several more years for him to fully recover.
“It is a lot of sacrifices. It's a lot of therapists. It's a lot of appointments with doctors because it actually affected his body,” Aleksanyan said.
In the midst of the medical issues, Aleksanyan decided to leave her job so that she could focus full-time on her son’s recovery. Now, she’s cautioning other parenting this holiday season to be cautious and watch out for the symptoms of RSV.
If parents notice their child is having trouble breathing, Aleksanyan says it’s best to take them to a pediatrician right away so no other parent has to go through something similar.
“If you don't want to take them to emergency departments right away, just at least do the bare minimum take them to a pediatrician’s office,” she said.