Guest Column | RSV on the rise across Four Corners
By Ethel Branch
Editor’s note: Ms. Branch is the executive director of Yee Ha’ólníi Doo dba the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund. She is the former Navajo Nation attorney general.
I’m writing this as a cautionary tale to other parents who may not understand the threat of RSV (the Respiratory Syncytial Virus) in our region. The Four Corners area is thick with RSV right now, and it is highly transmissible. Its symptoms can be severe and should be taken very seriously.
Roughly a month ago, my 2-year-old son started displaying what I would consider typical cold or flu symptoms. This seemed to be a weekly occurrence this winter, with my son being newly introduced to the preschool environment. It wasn’t until his symptoms escalated to a fever that I became concerned.
His temperature hit 102 degrees Fahrenheit two times in a two-hour period one night. We were in the midst of travel but detoured to the nearest tribal healthcare facility in Winslow to address these concerning health developments. Unfortunately, the Winslow Indian Healthcare facility was closed, so we ended up at the non-tribal Little Colorado Medical Center Emergency Room.
The sign on the door reminded patrons that “A cold or flu is not an emergency,” and this almost stopped me from entering the facility. Nonetheless, I proceeded because of the potential for a high fever to cause brain damage. No way was I going to risk that.
After mildly scolding me for masking my toddler, the doctor diagnosed my son with croup (the doctor surprisingly suggested that the mask may be the reason for my son’s coughing). The diagnosis came after an X-ray and the doctor ruling out pneumonia. However, I noticed the doctor didn’t test for Covid. There was a sign on the sign-in window saying the (emergency room) would not test for Covid, so I wasn’t surprised. However, I was curious why since I would certainly like to rule that out.
It didn’t occur to me to be concerned about RSV even though my son’s preschool had recently posted information noting how highly contagious RSV was. In fact, I was contemplating withdrawing my son from preschool to avoid him contracting RSV. Somehow I thought the symptoms for RSV would hit hard and fast and give an unmistakable sign that it was something more serious than the cold or flu.
So we left that night with a prescription for a steroid treatment, and I felt assured my little guy would be back to himself in no time. Unfortunately, the next day while I was filling his prescription, my niece informed me that his chest was more depressed than usual. I inspected him upon my return and agreed that his chest appeared caved in.
I called Sacred Peaks to try to get him in for an appointment that day, but they didn’t have availability. His non-tribal pediatrician’s office also didn’t have availability, but they encouraged me to take him to the emergency room because his caved chest symptom suggested he was having difficulty breathing.
I took him into the Flagstaff Medical Center Emergency Room, and they immediately nose-swabbed him for Covid and RSV. Shortly thereafter, they diagnosed him with RSV, placed him on oxygen, and admitted him to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU).
We were fortunate to take the last PICU hospital bed left in Flagstaff that evening. We were told the next nearest PICU beds were in Oklahoma, Texas, and California. We remained in the PICU for four days and almost had to leave with my little guy still on oxygen. Fortunately, things turned around, and he only needed lung treatments that I could administer at home.
A number of IHS physicians have reported that cases of RSV in children and elders have been higher this year than in previous years. To prevent the spread of RSV, we should continue adhering closely to our Covid prevention fundamentals, such as wearing our masks, washing our hands, and social distancing. To protect health in our community overall, we should all also stay up-to-date on our vaccines, such as by getting the bivalent omicron booster (this will fully catch you up on Covid boosters) and the annual flu shot.
If your child displays cold or flu symptoms, please watch their symptoms closely, and if you notice your little one having difficulty breathing, take him or her in to be seen by a doctor. A pulse oximeter is helpful in monitoring your child’s oxygen level and can be purchased at any pharmacy. If you end up in the ER, insist on an RSV test.
RSV is not just a regular cold or flu. It ended up being for my son what I feared Covid would be, with him experiencing frighteningly severe congestion and having the inability to breathe without machine assistance.
Thank you for listening. It was hard for me to share this deeply personal and vulnerable experience, and I only do so in the hope that you can learn from it and be better able to protect your beloved little ones this winter.
Thank you so much to Dr. Haefner and her incredible team at FMC for keeping my son safe and for making our stay as pleasant as possible.