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Biden administration sidesteps calls to declare RSV a health emergency

Pediatric groups have called on President Joe Biden for more federal help to respond to the impact of respiratory illnesses in children.

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Thursday sidestepped calls from pediatric groups that have been urging the government to declare a public health emergency in response to the surge in respiratory illnesses in children.

In a statement responding to pressure from the Children’s Hospital Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other groups, a Biden administration official said that “public health emergencies are determined based on nationwide data, science trends, and the insight of public health experts.”

The official said the administration is “ready to provide assistance to communities who are in need of help on a case-by-case basis” and encouraged people to take preventive action, such as “avoiding close contact with people who are sick, staying home when sick, covering coughs and sneezes, and staying up to date on their flu and COVID-19 vaccines to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.”

Pediatric units across the U.S. are overwhelmed by an unseasonally early surge of respiratory viruses among babies and toddlers, including RSV and the flu. Some parts of the country have completely run out of pediatric beds.

As of Wednesday, 78% of pediatric hospital beds were full nationwide, with seven states reporting capacity levels above 90%, according to an NBC News analysis of data from the Department of Health and Human Services.

The Children’s Hospital Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics asked President Joe Biden and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra in a letter sent Monday to declare a national emergency, as well as a public health emergency, “to support the national response to the alarming surge of pediatric hospitalizations.”

“These unprecedented levels of RSV happening with growing flu rates, ongoing high numbers of children in mental health crisis and serious workforce shortages are combining to stretch pediatric care capacity at the hospital and community level to the breaking point,” the organizations wrote, adding that “this crisis requires more action and support.”

The organizations said the emergency declarations would allow pediatric practices more flexibility to respond to the influx of patients and free up federal resources, such as assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

RSV often looks like a common cold, but in serious cases it can lead to lung infections, such as pneumonia or bronchiolitis, which may require supplemental oxygen or ventilators. Young babies are especially vulnerable to severe outcomes, as are children with lung diseases or weakened immune systems. 

More than 26,000 RSV tests came back positive from Oct. 30 to Nov. 12 — far more than the number of positive tests recorded over the same period last year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not keep national counts of RSV cases, hospitalization or deaths.

Flu cases have also skyrocketed in the last month across all age groups, surpassing seasonal averages going back to 2010-11. Children ages 4 and younger have among the highest rates of flu hospitalizations this season, behind adults ages 65 and older.

Biden has encouraged people to get the flu shot and the updated Covid boosters.

“We’re already seeing a rise in the flu and RSV and other respiratory illnesses, especially among young children,” Biden said last month at the White House. “My administration is doing our part. We’ve made these updated vaccines easy to get and available for free at tens of thousands of convenient locations.”

The Covid public health emergency, which has been extended several times since the pandemic hit, is set to expire in January.