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North Texas Doctor Says COVID-19 Precautions May Explain Fewer RSV Cases in 2020

Sick baby boy rests on a hospital bed and has inhalation therapy by the mask of inhaler.
A sick baby boy rests on a hospital bed and gets inhalation therapy through the mask of an inhaler.

Amid the pandemic, seasonal viruses like flu and West Nile virus have shown up in North Texas, but not RSV, a respiratory virus that affects mostly young children.

KERA’S Sam Baker talked with Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Health, about how RSV’s absence this year may be tied to the pandemic.


The Usual RSV Season:

In North Texas, we typically start seeing RSV cases in September and those numbers rise throughout October. Typically about November 1st or so is what we consider the beginning of the RSV season. That's defined by two consecutive weeks where at least 10% of respiratory specimens are testing positive for RSV.

By mid-December, we're seeing children coming to the hospital with RSV, our ICUs have children who have RSV infections.

This Year:

What's so striking about this year is the number of RSV-positive specimens from mid-September until now is zero.

The only answer to that obviously could be the types of things that we're practicing as the population - social distancing measures and mask-wearing — is clearly having an effect on other respiratory viruses, not just COVID-19.

Now, it certainly could be that we'll start seeing RSV cases pop up a little later. Maybe we've just shifted the peak of the season to perhaps maybe late winter and spring. But regardless, this is a pattern that we haven't seen before.

Where Does An Infant Get RSV?

Most likely from people in their household. It could be older siblings. It could be their parents. They bring it into the home and they transmit it to young infants who are particularly prone to RSV disease.

So it seems that we've disrupted the pattern somehow. And again, I think it's multifactorial, but what we're seeing here is really a natural experiment. In other words, we've changed our behavior and nature is giving us an answer.

Could Social Protective Measures Work Against Other Viruses?

Actually now we're learning the answers to that question. We know that simple measures can really disrupt the circulation of respiratory viruses. And I think that that's an incredibly important point to emphasize here.

The COVID pandemic has taught us a lot of things. And although there's a lot of promise now with the new vaccines, I think we have to take a look at the lessons that we've learned from these other viruses.



Coronavirus and RSV

Interview highlights were lightly edited for clarity.

Got a tip? Email Sam Baker at You can follow Sam on Twitter @srbkera.

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Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.