ATLANTA — Hospitals across metro Atlanta said they’re filled with patients, mostly children, contracting the respiratory virus: RSV.
It often appears like a mild cold, but it can be dangerous for babies and older adults.
Health officials said it's unusual to see this kind of RSV spread in the summer, as cases generally peak in winter.
April and Jake Joines are no stranger to the virus.
Their daughter Lilian had it as a newborn, as did their son Luke.
"As a parent, you're just kind of in a fog of like, what is going on?" April Joines said. "Like, he was fine, and now he has a feeding tube. Watching a four-week-old baby just struggle to breathe and be hooked up on every machine that they have, it's terrifying."
Another blow came in October, when another bout of RSV left Lilian, now 6, hospitalized for 17 days.
“Her lungs looked terrible, she could not breathe," Joines recalled. "Her face and her neck swelled to about four times its normal size. And it was extremely traumatic.”
The CDC said cases of the respiratory virus among children are surging, particularly in the south.
In Georgia, there was an average of 10 positive cases a week reported in February and March. Then there was a sharp increase. As of August, there were an average of 136 positive cases reported a week statewide.
“The uptick is real," Dr. Afif El-Hasan said, a pediatrician and spokesperson for the American Lung Association.
“Transmission is through respiratory droplets but you can also, unfortunately, get it off of surfaces," he said. "And the problem with RSV, it can actually linger there for a few hours."
There is currently no vaccine for RSV, although trials are ongoing.
The symptoms are similar to those of a cold or COVID, like a cough and trouble breathing.
The CDC is recommending children who test negative for COVID be tested for RSV.
"It can go from like a sniffly, like, you know, raspy sounding cough or cold to labored breathing in a couple of hours, it can change," Joines said.
Children's Healthcare of Atlanta said a significant increase in RSV cases and other respiratory illnesses has led them to open a tent outside their emergency department to help alleviate the strain and ensure they don’t have to turn people away.
Most cases of RSV are mild and resolve within a week or two, but the virus leads to an average of 58,000 hospitalizations and up to 500 child deaths each year.
Those numbers are on track to be much higher this year.
"If the child is panting, if you can see the ribs with every breath, if the child is having problems feeding or just with normal physical activity, that can be very serious and probably needs to be attended to very promptly," Dr. El-Hasan said.
The Joines hope to raise awareness so other families don’t have to experience what they did.
“It was just the feeling that I want to switch places with my little girl," Jake Joines recalled. "If I could take the pain away, I wanted to be the one to have to go through that.”
Doctors said if your child is sick, even if they test negative for COVID or it seems like they just have a cold, it's best to keep them home.
Kids who are immunocompromised or have asthma are particularly at risk for a serious case of RSV.