‘A menagerie of respiratory winter viruses,’ Iowa doctor says about unusual summer spike of sick kids


DES MOINES, Iowa — Ruptured appendix in a child? Yes, doctors at Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines have beds available for those types of emergency surgeries. But for operations to remove tonsils or repair a hernia? Those young patients may need to keep waiting.

“We have been at capacity or near capacity for the last six to eight weeks,” explained Dr. Wendy Woods-Swafford, Blank Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center Medical Director. “There are mornings that we have patients holding in the emergency room waiting for beds.”

Woods-Swafford said that COVID-19 is not the primary reason for the recent surge in demand at the hospital. Instead, it is respiratory illnesses in children. But the timing of the illnesses is unusual. “It’s a menagerie of respiratory winter viruses that we’re dealing with…just at a very odd time.”

She isn’t used to seeing so many of the typical winter illnesses (RSV, influenza, common cold-related viruses) during the summer months. “That’s an excellent question,” she responded when asked why those illnesses are impacting children in higher numbers now.

The doctor surmised that it could be a combination of families resuming travel and not adhering to physical distancing and masks as they once did. Did those previous precautions delay last year’s illnesses several months until now or somehow speed up their arrival for the upcoming winter months? She isn’t sure. But it’s unusual.

Woods-Swafford said that delaying elective surgeries because of the additional demand for services now is not ideal. “It’s not a good delay,” she said, “…puts more delay on the system at a later time. But it’s a hard balance to decide what’s the greater strain.”

MercyOne hospitals in Des Moines are not delaying elective surgeries, according to spokeswoman Marcy Peterson. “MercyOne hospitals in Des Moines continue to operate on limited capacity. We have not cancelled elective surgeries at this time. We continue to provide all forms of care,” she emailed.

On Tuesday, MercyOne announced that its hospital staff in Des Moines would need to get vaccinated against COVID-19 by Nov. 1, except for those who get a religious or medical waiver or are pregnant. Broadlawns Medical Center later announced a similar mandate. UnityPoint announced its own mandate last week.

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