Respiratory viruses, other ailments causing record-breaking patient surge at Erlanger Children’s hospital

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ Erlanger Children's Hospital was photographed on Dec. 19, 2019.

November is on track to be one of the busiest months in history for the emergency department at the Children's Hospital at Erlanger.

Dr. Sarah Sterner, assistant medical director of the Erlanger children's emergency department, said respiratory viruses -- namely influenza followed by respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV -- are the primary drivers of the record-breaking patient surge. But a stomach virus and the range of other injuries and ailments that send children to emergency departments are also contributing factors, she said.

"We were seeing mostly RSV at the beginning of the surge," Sterner said. "Those numbers are trending down some, and now flu is spiking."

Jenny DeLong, nurse manager of the Erlanger children's emergency department, said there was a significant increase in patients at the start of November, and the department has been averaging 164 patients a day. The department hit a record of 205 patients in 24 hours on Nov. 7, she said.

"There's only been four or five months in our history that we've seen over 4,000 [patients], and we're almost to 3,000 already this month," DeLong said, noting that there's a week and a half left in the month.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga health officials monitoring flu amid possible 'tripledemic')

DeLong said mental health crises are also contributing to the surge, because those cases have been on the rise ever since the pandemic and are traditionally more prevalent around the holidays.

"Unfortunately, Tennessee needs more resources for behavioral health patients, so those that need admission to an inpatient psychiatric facility have been waiting in the emergency department longer for bed availability," she said.

Sterner compared the current situation in the children's emergency department, which was not as heavily affected by COVID as the adult side, as the pediatric comparison to the peak of the pandemic for adults in terms of patient volume and resource strain.

"We're over 100% capacity, but it's flu and RSV," Sterner said. "Many of the staff members are working extra hours to help so we can care for everyone as quickly as possible."

(READ MORE: Hamilton County health officials preach vaccination as Tennessee sees high flu levels)

DeLong said that even though the department has been busier than normal, staff members have done a very good job working together. But she also warned that children with mild illness who come to the emergency department now may end up waiting longer than normal for an available bed because the sickest patients must be seen first.

The team is optimistic that Thanksgiving break could provide some relief.

"Dr. Woods is our expert in this, and he has been saying that he's hopeful for a slight downward trend during the holidays because kids won't be in school," she said, "but it's hard to predict things since COVID."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at or 423-757-6673. Follow her on Twitter @ecfite.