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Another respiratory virus is stressing Albuquerque-area hospitals.

An unusually early surge of RSV, which stands for respiratory syncytial virus, has pushed local hospitals to their licensed capacity for pediatric beds. The University of New Mexico Children’s Hospital has even had to follow a surge plan to convert additional spaces into beds for children. The hospital is licensed for 69 general pediatric beds across three units and an additional 20 beds in a pediatric ICU unit for a total of 89, according to hospital officials.

Dr. Anna Duran, the associate chief medical officer of UNM’s Children’s Hospital, said because of a lack of space 10 patients recently stayed overnight in the pediatric emergency room, which is not normally used to treat patients overnight.

Presbyterian hospitals have also recently been pushed to their pediatric capacities because of RSV cases, said Dr. John Pederson, medical director for children’s services at Presbyterian Healthcare Services.

New Mexico isn’t alone. Across the country, children’s hospitals are reporting more RSV cases earlier in the season. Physicians said it’s likely because many young children haven’t been exposed to the virus before because of COVID-19 precautions.

“Masking and social distancing worked to contain COVID-19, but also worked to contain other respiratory viruses like RSV, Influenza and Rhinovirus,” Pederson said in a statement. “We’re seeing children between one and three years old whose immune systems have not seen the routine respiratory viruses that usually circulate each year.”

Doctors said that to stay safe people should regularly wash hands and clean surfaces, and try to teach children not to touch their faces. The physicians also reminded parents not to send their children to day care if they are sick.

The uptick in cases of RSV this fall comes after the state hospital system was stretched to its limits with surges of COVID patients the last two winters.

RSV cases in New Mexico typically don’t peak until January or February, said Dr. Martha Muller, the division chief for pediatric infectious diseases and allergy immunology at UNMH.

She said most of the cases seen in the community are among children younger than 5.

RSV typically doesn’t cause severe symptoms but can pose a threat to young children and older adults. The CDC estimates that nationwide, 58,000 children and 177,000 older adults will be hospitalized with the virus each year.

Duran said symptoms usually include respiratory distress, rapid breathing, dehydration or apnea. Some infants and vulnerable people require oxygen, or they need to be admitted to the ICU, she said.

Children who are hospitalized with the virus at UNM are allowed two adult visitors, who must wear masks the entire time. Children are not allowed into the hospital as visitors, said Maribeth Thornton, the assistant chief nursing officer for UNM’s Children’s and Women’s hospitals.