A continued rise in respiratory illness, especially cases of RSV, has pushed Colorado’s pediatric hospital capacity to the brink.

On Monday, state health officials said there were only two available pediatric intensive-care beds across the state.

“There is extreme stress in the pediatric ICU capacity in the state of Colorado right now,” said Scott Bookman, the director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Division of Disease Control and Public Health Response.

So far this season, there have been 895 hospitalizations for RSV, which is more formally known as respiratory syncytial virus. Of those, 836 hospitalizations have been among children, with the state’s youngest kids hit the hardest.

There have been 190 hospitalizations of infants under 6 months of age, an astonishing rate of 1,165 hospitalizations per 100,000 population. Put another way, it means state health officials estimate that 1 out of every 86 infants in Colorado under the age of 6 months has been hospitalized with RSV this fall.

For kids between the ages of 6 months and 2 years old, there have been 246 hospitalizations, or 1 for every 196 kids estimated to be in that age group in Colorado.

Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state epidemiologist, said there have been 255 documented outbreaks of RSV at schools and child care centers. Tests for RSV are coming back positive almost 25% of the time, a shockingly high rate that has continued increasing in recent weeks even as health officials have sounded an alarm about the rise in RSV cases.

“At this time, there’s no sign of RSV slowing down in the state, unfortunately,” Herlihy said.

As Colorado Governor Jared Polis, left, listens, Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state epidemiologist at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, makes a point about the availability of COVID-19 vaccinations in the state during a news conference on the state’s efforts against the coronavirus Tuesday, April 27, 2021, in Denver.(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The strained capacity means that hospitals have reactivated a transfer center used during the heights of the COVID pandemic to more efficiently move patients between hospitals to maximize available space.

Bookman said hospitals that don’t normally treat children have begun admitting teenagers into their adult ICUs. Young infants are being admitted into neonatal intensive care units in hospital maternity wards, in which they would ordinarily be too old for treatment.

Bookman referred to this as “increasing pediatric capacity on both ends.”

“The strategies right now are really about increasing capacity across all of the systems,” he said.

In Colorado and nationally, pediatric-specific hospital capacity tends to be centralized in a few specialty hospitals like Children’s Hospital Colorado and Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children. That makes it unlike adult hospital capacity, which is more widely distributed. It means there is far less ability for pediatric hospitals to handle overwhelming surges of patients.

Bookman said the level of strain on pediatric hospitals is near-unprecedented, even for the colder months when the hospitals typically gear up for a wave of young patients with respiratory viruses.

“What we are seeing this season is obviously not typical,” he said.

Adding to the challenges is that hospitalizations for other respiratory illnesses are also increasing for people of all ages.

Flu season has hit earlier than normal — though it has not been nearly as severe as RSV. Since October, there have been 164 hospitalizations for flu. Nearly half of those — 80 — have been people age 65 or older.

Hospitalizations for COVID have also been increasing. Herlihy said there are currently 379 people hospitalized with the virus. About 68% of those patients are hospitalized for reasons directly related to COVID, according to state data.

The trends have health officials urging Coloradans to be mindful of the health of others during holiday gatherings. Bookman urged people to get vaccinated against the flu and to be up-to-date on vaccinations and boosters for COVID. He said people may want to stock up on COVID rapid tests to double-check that they are negative before visiting family.

“First and foremost, we need to stay home if we’re sick,” he said. “What can feel like a mild cold for one person can be a very serious illness in someone who is higher risk, particularly infants and older adults. So if you’re feeling sick, we really would ask that people stay home.”

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