Preparing for Flu Season: Q&A Session with Dr. Whiteman, MD, FACEP, FAAP

The 2022 flu season posed significant challenges for hospitals that care for children and medical facilities across the U.S. As infection rates rapidly rose, hospitals were operating at or above capacity. Multiple states declared a state of emergency, and the American Academy of Pediatrics urged President Biden to declare a national state of emergency.  

With flu season approaching again this year, it is vital to help hospitals prepare to care for an influx of pediatric patients. We spoke with Dr. Paula Whiteman, MD, FACEP, FAAP, who is board-certified in Emergency Medicine with a sub-specialty certification in Pediatric Emergency Medicine, to get her insight on the 2023 flu season, its predicted impact on hospitals, and ways to support hospitalized children through flu prevention and infection control measures.

Q: Do you expect flu season to be the same this year?  

A: It is difficult to project what this year’s flu season will be like, but if it is anything like last year’s “tripledemic” of the flu, COVID, and RSV, then it is important to help hospitals prepare now. 

The “tripledemic” led to upper respiratory infections in children caused by one or more viruses at the same time. Now, COVID numbers are trending upwards, and children are going back indoors to school, which can increase the likelihood of transmission. 

Q: What are some challenges that you foresee hospitals that care for children will face during the upcoming flu season?   

A: Over the years, many hospitals have decreased the number of pediatric beds or have even eliminated some crucial pediatric services, such as pediatric intensive care. This has placed increased demands on those hospitals that continue to offer those pediatric services. Thus, the occupancy rate for pediatric beds is on an upward trajectory and is predicted to continue to rise as we approach winter. 

In addition, many rural hospitals have unfortunately closed and those surrounding rural communities may not have pediatricians, forcing families to travel long distances for care. The remaining hospitals in those areas form a “safety net” and are especially in need of child-friendly resources, such as those provided by organizations like Starlight.

Q: What are some ways that Starlight programs can aid the flu season’s impact on hospitalized children? 

A: Many hospitals have certified child life specialists (CCLS), who are trained staff dedicated to helping children and their families navigate the healthcare environment. However, hospitals without those dedicated professionals are especially in need of the programs offered by Starlight.  

Especially during cold and flu season, sick children may have to stay in their rooms for a variety of reasons. Starlight Gaming Stations and Handheld Nintendo Switches can be used in a patient’s room and sanitized for the next child to use. Starlight Toy Deliveries, including toys and games, can also be played with in their room and remain in compliance with hospital infection control policies and restrictive visiting protocols. Starlight Hospital Gowns’ fun and colorful designs can provide comfort for the influx of patients expected this flu season and may also help contribute to feelings of empowerment as the children can dress and play as their favorite characters.  

It is more important than ever to donate to Starlight to provide hospitals with resources, such as toys and pediatric hospital gowns, so the hospital staff can focus on the medical aspects of helping children get well. 

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Additional Tips from Dr. Whiteman for Parents: Ways to Prevent the Flu

  1. Prevention or mitigation is key. Stay up to date on your flu, COVID, and RSV vaccinations as discussed with your private medical doctor.  

  2. Hand hygiene is important! Wash your hands with soap and water for 20-30 seconds, including both the front and underneath your fingernails, or use hand sanitizer. 

  3. If your child is sick, keep them away from other people. It is important to stay home from school for 24 hours after the fever has subsided without the use of antipyretics. If you or your child must go out when experiencing cold and flu symptoms, consider wearing a respiratory mask to reduce transmission. Follow up with your pediatrician as needed.

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