‘This virus will find you.’ Niswonger Children’s Hospital seeing increase in critically ill children with COVID-19

Local Coronavirus Coverage

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — For the first time ever, the pediatric intensive care unit at the Niswonger Children’s Hospital is full, Ballad Health officials said Thursday.

The cause – a surge in COVID-19 cases among children in addition to other respiratory illnesses unlike anything the hospital has seen since the start of the pandemic.

“The ER is full, and we have no place to put these kids,” said Dr. Priyam Chaudhary, a pediatric intensive care physician at Niswonger Children’s Hospital. “All of our beds are full. We have absolutely no capacity to take anymore critically ill children.”

PICU team members move in PPE from room to room, monitoring the critically ill children at the Niswonger Children’s Hospital.

Ballad Health said it was treating nine pediatric patients with COVID-19. The Niswonger Children’s Hospital has 10 pediatric intensive care rooms. Five of them were filled with COVID-19 patients, two of whom were on ventilators Thursday.

For the hospital’s staff already depleted staff, the Delta variant surge and its impact on children is making matters worse.

“We don’t have the nursing staff that we need to take care of these patients,” said Holly Rinehart, corporate director of pediatric services at Ballad Health. “What we’re seeing from a patient perspective is something we’ve just not seen before in pediatrics.”

Holly Rinehard,, Corporate Director of Pediatric Services at Ballad Health, speaks with News Channel 11 in a PICU room that, moments later, was occupied by a newly admitted patient.

The regional children’s hospital has treated COVID-19 patients throughout the pandemic, some as young as one month old. But there never has been this many seriously ill patients – all of whom are unvaccinated teens, doctors said.

“They are in various stages of being very ill.  I’m not entirely sure if these kids are going to make it. Or not make it. All I can tell you is they’re very very ill,” said Dr. Chaudhary.

She said the teen patients have underlying health conditions including obesity. “A lot of these families have told me they’re healthy, and they’re not,” Chaudhary said. “Obesity is such a high-risk factor for having a comorbidity, and you can get very, very ill.”

The third floor of the Niswonger Children’s Hospital houses the pediatric intensive care unit. All ten PICU beds are full, half of them with COVID-19 patients.

Doctors and nurses here are pleading with parents to take action.

“If you have a teenager who has not been vaccinated, I urge you to go get them vaccinated as soon as possible if they’re not,” said Dr. Chaudhary. She also urged parents to encourage their children to wear masks while in school and when they can’t socially distance until the surge in cases is over. “Continue to be very cautious because this virus will find you,” she said.

Ballad Health said pediatric emergency room visits have tripled in recent weeks, an ominous sign for staff at the children’s hospital who fear some of the children who went home to recuperate may have to return to the hospital for care.  

“I have no words,” Rinehart said.  “These kids are so sick. It’s taking such a toll on the staff members.  It’s scary.  We will get through it but it’s hard.”

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