Pediatric ICUs face bed shortage amid RSV surge: "It's not hyperbole to call it a crisis"

Boston — For every patient discharged from the pediatric intensive care unit at Mass General for Children in Boston, three more are waiting for that bed. A surge in cases of respiratory syncytial virus, also known as RSV, has hospitals nationwide struggling to treat patients. 

“I’ve never seen, in my 26 years, the capacity issues. There’s no PICU beds in the Northeast,” said Kimberly Whalen, the nursing director of the 14-bed unit. 

When Gabriella Boulting saw her 1-month-old gasping for air, she called a pediatrician who sent her to the local hospital. The baby, Alma, was then transferred to Mass General. 

“She went from breastfeeding to being intubated in just one day. And I was so shocked at how fast that change happened,” Boulting said. “It was certainly a concern whether or not we were going to be able to find a bed. My husband and I even started calling everyone we know who we could think of, who had any affiliation with the hospitals.” 

Alma did get a bed, but had to wait more than six hours for it and for an ambulance to be ready. 

Dr. Paul Biddinger, who oversees Mass General’s emergency preparedness, says the hospital has been forced to move some children into the adult ICU. 

“It’s not hyperbole to call it a crisis,” he said. “In the last three years, the health care system has shown extraordinary flexibility in creating critical care spaces when they’re needed.” 

Across the country, 36 states are seeing elevated levels of RSV cases compared to this time last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hospitals in 10 states are at or above 80% capacity, according to the Health and Human Services Department. 

Many hospitals converted pediatric beds to adult beds during the pandemic, and some have not switched them back, contributing to the shortage. 

Despite the challenges, Biddinger urges parents to bring their child in at the first sign of respiratory distress. 

“They should know that all of us in health care are doing everything we can so that when a child is sick, we can deliver the care immediately in a timely fashion,” he said. “We will find a hospital bed for that patient.”

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