Illinois doctors plead with parents to get flu shots for kids

Illinois doctors plead with parents to get flu shots for kids

Illinois health leaders are pleading with parents to get their children vaccinated against the flu, which is increasingly spreading in the Chicago area and threatening to further stretch already-strained children’s hospitals.

“We expect the number of children needing care for these viruses to increase significantly over the next several weeks,” said Dr. Larry Kociolek, medical director of infection, prevention and control at Lurie Children’s, referring to respiratory illnesses and the flu at a news conference Thursday. “This raises concerns for us. This raises concerns for parents. … But there’s hope. We can prevent many of these infections.”

Children’s hospitals in the Chicago area and across the country have already been packed for months, thanks to earlier-than-usual surges of RSV, which stands for respiratory syncytial virus, and other respiratory illnesses. Those surges have led to longer ER waits, occasionally delayed surgeries and difficulty transferring pediatric patients between hospitals.

Only about 9% of pediatric intensive care unit beds in Illinois were available as of Thursday morning, and earlier this week, that figure was as low as 4%, said Dr. Sameer Vohra, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health.

“Even during the worst moments of the COVID-19 pandemic we saw nothing like this. In fact, we never dropped below 50% in our (pediatric intensive care unit) capacity,” Vohra said. “The current surge that we are seeing is putting a significant strain on our hospital systems. It means that in some cases, children who need critical care are having to wait for emergency department beds, for hospital beds to open, and often are needing long distances around transfers.”

Hospital staffing shortages have exacerbated the situation, with some hospitals not able to use all of their beds because of a lack of enough nurses to staff them.

Now, flu activity in Chicago is on the rise, according to the Chicago Department of Public Health. The percentage of emergency department visits for influenza-like illnesses is already higher than it was at this time in 2019. Some are predicting this could be a rough flu season, based on the recent flu season in the Southern Hemisphere.

“We have not seen enough Chicagoans take advantage of this tool to protect themselves and those around them,” Dr. Jennifer Seo, chief medical officer at the Chicago Department of Public Health, said of flu and COVID-19 vaccines.

As of Nov. 10, about 1.5 million of Illinois’ more than 12.5 million residents had received a dose of new COVID-19 bivalent boosters, which aim to protect against COVID-19 broadly and the omicron variant. Bivalent boosters are authorized for people 5 and older.

It’s recommended that children ages 6 months or older get vaccinated against the flu each year. Though most children who get the flu, RSV and other respiratory illnesses will have relatively mild cases and be able to recover at home, each year tens of thousands of children across the country must be hospitalized and hundreds die, Kociolek said.

Flu vaccines can reduce the risk that children will die or need hospitalization from the illness, said Dr. John Cunningham, physician-in-chief at University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital.

“If your children or you are not vaccinated or boosted, don’t wait any longer,” Vohra said. “Make arrangements now for your children to get both those shots.”

Parents should get their kids vaccinated to protect them and to help prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, said Ald. Brian Hopkins, 2nd. Local doctors say they see signs that RSV may be flattening, but the flu is just getting started.

“When the institutions that protect us and the professionals that work within them, when they ask for help, you heed the call,” Hopkins said. “They’re asking for help right now. The system is under a tremendous amount of stress and strain, and it’s not sustainable.”

If children get sick, parents can seek help from their pediatricians. If parents can’t get into their pediatricians’ offices quickly or symptoms seem to be worsening, they may want to go to an urgent care, said Dr. Andrew Kreppel, associate head of clinical affairs for the department of pediatrics at UI Health.

“If it seems like they really are struggling to breathe or they’re not acting right, or anything that makes your parental hairs on the back of your neck stand up, then please take them into the emergency department,” Kreppel said.

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