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Re-emergence of respiratory syncytial virus following the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States: a modeling study

By Zhe Zheng, Virginia E. Pitzer, Eugene D Shapiro, Louis J. Bont, Daniel M. Weinberger

Posted 22 Jul 2021
medRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.07.19.21260817

Importance: Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a leading cause of hospitalizations in young children. RSV largely disappeared in 2020 due to precautions taken because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Projecting the timing and intensity of the re-emergence of RSV and the age groups affected is crucial for planning for the administration of prophylactic antibodies and anticipating hospital capacity. Objective: To project the potential timing and intensity of re-emergent RSV epidemics in different age groups. Design, Setting, Participants: Mathematical models were used to reproduce the annual RSV epidemics before the COVID-19 pandemic in New York and California. These models were modified to project the trajectory of RSV epidemics in 2020-2025 under different scenarios with varying stringency of mitigation measures for SARS-CoV-2: 1) constant low RSV transmission rate from March 2020 to March 2021; 2) an immediate decrease in RSV transmission in March 2020 followed by a gradual increase in transmission until April 2021; 3) a decrease in non-household contacts from April to July 2020. Simulations also evaluated factors likely to impact the re-emergence of RSV epidemics, including introduction of virus from out-of-state sources and decreased transplacentally acquired immunity in infants. Main Outcomes and Measures: The primary outcome of this study was defined as the predicted number of RSV hospitalizations each month in the entire population. Secondary outcomes included the age distribution of hospitalizations among children <5 years of age, incidence of any RSV infection, and incidence of RSV lower respiratory tract infection (LRI). Results: In the 2021-2022 RSV season, we expect that the lifting of mitigation measures and build-up of susceptibility will lead to a larger-than-normal RSV outbreak. We predict an earlier-than-usual onset in the upcoming RSV season if there is substantial external introduction of RSV. Among children 1-4 years of age, the incidence of RSV infections could be twice that of a typical RSV season, with infants <6 months of age having the greatest seasonal increase in the incidence of both severe RSV LRIs and hospitalizations. Conclusions and Relevance: Pediatric departments, including pediatric intensive care units, should be alert to large RSV outbreaks. Enhanced surveillance is required for both prophylaxis administration and hospital capacity management.

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