4 Aug 2021

RSV crisis easing but still 'quite a demand' on emergency departments

6:40 am on 4 August 2021

The huge spike in the respiratory virus RSV that has been overwhelming hospitals has eased, but there's a warning further surges can be expected.

The group Action to Improve Maternity wants the Health Minister to implement each of the Coroner's recommendations.

RSV can be particularly harmful to babies and the elderly. Photo: 123RF

Unusually high rates of the disease have been reported throughout New Zealand this winter.

After a hectic few weeks of overflowing paediatric wards and babies on oxygen and feeding tubes most hospitals said the rates were plateauing or reducing.

They were still dealing with cases but not as the same rate as a few weeks ago.

Some said the school holidays could have been a circuit-breaker but they were worried that the new term could spark a resurgence.

Cases at both Whanganui and Timaru hospitals had dipped, but there had been a resurgence in the past few days.

Most hospitals contacted by RNZ said they were back to normal winter demand, still very busy but not with the added pressure of RSV in full flight.

Canterbury chief medical officer Helen Skinner said Christchurch Hospital had about 700 people through its emergency department last weekend.

"The numbers of patients presenting with RSV are starting to come down in keeping with the national picture. However we're still seeing quite a demand on our emergency department but also... general practice, urgent care clinics are seeing high levels of demand as well," she said.

University of Otago paediatric infectious diseases specialist Tony Walls said while cases had declined "it would take a brave person to predict we're over the worst of it at this time of year."

In previous years the virus had spiked around July, but often had smaller surges and taken until October or November to completely peter out, he said.

Timaru Hospital director of patient nursing Lisa Blacker said the spotlight had been on sick children in this outbreak but RSV often had a big impact on the elderly too.

More than 100 older people were admitted in the past month, with those already unwell hit particularly hard, she said.

"Their length of stay is longer, their ability to return to normal function is delayed, as well as [increased] presentations and admissions through into our intensive care unit," she said.

Staff had been off work with the highly infectious disease, she said.

That put more pressure on nurses left behind and meant some planned surgery or procedures had to be postponed.

"They're working above and beyond - additional duties, overtime - to ensure that we maintain patient safety for our acute wards," she said.

Walls said taking the same precautions as for Covid-19, such as social distancing and staying home when sick, will slow the spread of RSV.