ST. GEORGE — When it comes to local children who are seriously ill or injured, St. George Regional Hospital is not the primary place they end up.
Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City is.
But as part of a major new initiative, the head of the hospital says there are now plans to add remote Children’s Hospital clinics around the state, including in Southern Utah.
“We really have a philosophy of trying to keep kids as close to home as possible,” Katy Welkie, chief executive officer of Primary Children’s Hospital and vice president of Intermountain Children’s Health, said. “We are developing telehealth and in-person clinics, but sometimes kids will still have a reason to come to Primary.”
Welkie was speaking Nov. 10 at a news conference in Salt Lake City for the Children’s Hospital’s new “Primary Promise” initiative where the hospital is spending $600 million on what it says is the goal to create a national model for pediatrics. That initiative includes the construction of the hospital’s second campus in Lehi.
Improving the reach of the hospital throughout the state is one of the three pillars of the initiative, which also includes strengthening the hospital’s research programs and expanding early intervention programs like those for literacy and child hunger.
“We want to keep kids closer to home,” Welkie said. “We’re seeing more and more patients each day. We grasp this once-in-a-generational-opportunity to build better health for children.”
Along with in-person clinics, Intermountain Healthcare, which runs Primary Children’s, is expanding telehealth pediatric opportunities locally as well as utilizing teleconferences to allow experts at Primary to work with doctors and patients at St. George Regional Hospital, Cedar City Hospital and other local facilities.
Currently, if an illness or injury reaches a high level of severity in a local child, they are transported to Salt Lake City. Such was the case for Snow Canyon Little League All-Star Easton Oliverson as he finished his recovery at Primary Children’s Hospital from a severe head injury at the Little League World Series.
And that opportunity to expand the hospital’s reach into Southern Utah may come none too soon, as the hospital’s head of epidemiology told the Salt Lake Tribune Monday that the Primary campus in Salt Lake City has been at or near capacity for the last week.
Dr. Andrew Pavia told the Tribune that what is being called a pediatric “triple-demic” of the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), influenza and COVID-19 is “really stretching the ability to find hospital beds for patients, to find nurses to take care of them.”
In most adults, RSV is a mild cold, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In infants, young children and some elderly, it can become severe bronchiolitis or pneumonia that can cause hospitalization or death. RSV is the second-leading cause of death in children younger than 5, according to World Health Organization data behind malaria.
On Tuesday, the Utah Department of Health and Human Services issued an alert about the “rapid increase” in the number of children in the state who require hospitalization with RSV. And the American Academy of Pediatrics and Children’s Hospital Association jointly asked President Biden to declare a national children’s health emergency.
“The crisis unfolding across the country warrants immediate, comprehensive action from the federal government,” Mark Del Monte, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said in a statement.
A peer-reviewed model published last December in the Journal of the American Medical Association said that RSV and influenza in children were reduced in the last two years as a secondary effect of the masks, increased washing of hands and physical distancing done by people as remedies to reduce the spread of COVID-19. All three are spread by viruses hitching rides on water droplets expelled in coughs and sneezes.
The same study said it was likely that fall 2022 would see a drastic increase of all three in children. And that is exactly what Primary Children’s officials say they are seeing.
Not helping parents is that RSV has similar symptoms to the flu and COVID-19, the CDC said, including coughing, runny nose, fever and wheezing. But Utah Health officials said parents can get help narrowing down whether their child has RSV by having their child take a COVID-19 test.
The most sufficient would be a PCR lab test, rather than an at-home test that would have a 50-50 chance of detecting just COVID-19. The lab test is not only 95% accurate, according to the CDC, for detecting COVID-19 but may also detect RSV or influenza. Free COVID-19 PCR tests are available with registration for Southern Utah residents at Utah Tech’s Atwood Innovation Plaza and most health insurances will also cover tests at local pharmacies.
To reduce the chance of severe illness, Janelle Delgadillo, a flu specialist with the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement the best thing parents can do is to get their children vaccinated against COVID-19 and the flu.
“There is no vaccine for RSV, but there are vaccines for flu and COVID-19,” Delgadillo said. “Getting a flu vaccine and being up-to-date with your COVID-19 vaccines are the best way to reduce your risk of illness.”
The Utah Department of Health and Human Services also recommends the following extra precautions parents and those who care for young children can take concerning RSV:
- Avoid close contact with sick people.
- Cover your coughs and sneezes and use masks if appropriate.
- Wash their hands (and yours) often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces.
- Avoid touching their face (and yours) with unwashed hands.
- Limit the time they spend in childcare centers or other potentially contagious settings when RSV activity is high.
- Stay home when you’re sick.
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