Providence NICU enters crisis mode amid RSV surge, joining pediatric intensive care units

By April Ehrlich (OPB)
Dec. 3, 2022 10:32 p.m.

All three of Oregon’s pediatric care ICUs adjusted care standards last week to accommodate an overwhelming surge of critically ill infants and children.

Providence announced late Friday that its neonatal intensive care unit at the Portland Medical Center may need to take emergency steps to treat critically ill infants.

The medical center filed paperwork with the Oregon Health Authority to adjust care standards so health workers can treat more patients amid a statewide surge of children and infants seriously ill with respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV.


The state’s crisis of care standards provide hospitals greater flexibility; for instance, by allowing more patients for each nurse. The guidelines also allow hospitals to triage patients, wherein they prioritize patients who have a higher probability of survival. All Oregon hospital units that have entered into crisis care standards in recent weeks say they aren’t triaging patients.

Providence’s announcement comes about a week after all three of Oregon’s pediatric ICUs initiated crisis care standards — Oregon Health and Science University’s Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, Legacy’s Randall Children’s Hospital and Providence’s St. Vincent Medical Center.

Providence’s Portland Medical Center doesn’t have a pediatric ICU, so infants and children who need intensive pediatric care would need to be transferred to other hospitals. Neonatal care units can sometimes be used to treat very young infants who need intensive care, but they’re typically reserved for premature newborns.

Providence Medical Center in Portland

A file photo of Providence's Portland Medical Center. Providence announced late Friday that its neonatal intensive care unit at the center may need to take emergency steps to treat critically ill infants.

Wikimedia/Creative Commons

A Providence spokesperson said the center isn’t experiencing a high number of prematurely born infants; rather, the hospital is taking a precautionary measure in case its neonatal ICU becomes overwhelmed with other young infants who need intensive care.

In order for hospitals to treat more patients than they typically would, they need to request the ability to enter crisis care standards from OHA. The state agency grants that ability when patient care resources are severely limited and there’s no option to transfer patients elsewhere.

“Today, in the Portland metro region, we meet that criteria,” the release reads.

The Portland Medical Center spokesperson wouldn’t say if it was struggling to transfer infants needing pediatric care to other Portland hospitals or hospitals outside Oregon, since patient capacity fluctuates.

As of Saturday morning, just four of the state’s 48 pediatric ICU beds could accept new patients, and about a quarter of the state’s 269 neonatal ICU beds remained available.

The number of RSV cases has increased dramatically in Oregon in recent weeks, and heath officials have predicted a spike in RSV hospital admissions. Cases of the flu are also rising quickly in Oregon.

To combat these viruses, health officials encourage people to stay up to date on flu and COVID vaccines, wash their hands frequently, consider wearing face masks and to stay home if they’re sick.

Most RSV infections go away on their own in a week or two and can be managed with proper nutrition, hydration, sleep and use of over-the-counter medication. Oregon hospitals are discouraging people from visiting emergency rooms for illnesses that can be treated at home.