With some children’s hospitals in Canada experiencing significant surges in patients, emergency wait times have started to soar.
Wait times in the emergency department at CHEO in Ottawa were over 10 hours Thursday morning, and on Wednesday, the emergency department at London’s Children’s Hospital sent out a public notice on social media advising parents to prepare for wait times of five hours or more for non-urgent concerns.
A number of hospitals in Ontario say they are seeing significant influxes of children with respiratory illnesses, including RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), COVID-19 and influenza.
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This has placed considerable pressures on emergency departments across the province.
Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatric infectious disease specialist, says she is “very concerned” about how patient influxes are affecting the health system in the province, as there are no beds left in the University Health Network hospital in which she works.
“We’ve got this pandemic of three viruses right now, where it’s a COVID, RSV and the beginning of influenza, and so a lot of children are having these respiratory infections… and some of them are really sick and need to be hospitalized. But there’s no beds,” she said.
“And this is just the beginning of the season. It only gets worse.”
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Volumes of patients in the emergency department at SickKids hospital in Toronto are also “unseasonably high” and have been increasing, the hospital said in a statement to Global News. Wait time data available online showed an average wait time of close to five hours for non-urgent cases Thursday, and the hospital is encouraging parents to look at options for visiting a family doctor or accessing virtual care before heading to the ER.
Similar wait times are also being logged at the children’s hospitals in Hamilton, London and Eastern Ontario.
Quebec is also seeing a major influx of patients accessing children’s hospitals. The problem is so pronounced in Montreal, the Quebec government is creating a crisis management team to manage extreme overcrowding in hospital ERs.
Pediatric ERs have been particularly hard-hit, with the Montreal Children’s Hospital operating at 183 per cent.
“It could be 15 hours, 20 hours to see a physician,” Dr. Laurie Plotnick, the hospital’s medical director told Global News Wednesday.
“(Parents) have to plan for that and also to recognize that our staff are working incredibly hard,”
Sainte-Justine hospital in Montreal is also operating well over capacity at 175 per cent.
The picture varies in other parts of the country, however, with wait times at children’s hospitals in Manitoba and Alberta averaging close to three and four hours respectively, according to online tracking data.
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The B.C. Children’s Hospital, meanwhile, was showing wait times of over six hours in its emergency department Thursday morning.
The IWK in Halifax does not provide ER wait times online or over the phone.
Dr. Rodrick Lim, medical director and section head at London Health Sciences Centre’s pediatric emergency department, says patient volumes in his ER have increased by 50 to 80 per cent in recent days and weeks.
Physicians and nurses are doing everything they can, he said, and have even been getting creative with how and where they treat patients due to limited beds, including treating some patients in chairs in hallways.
But given that this is just the start of the respiratory illness season, emergency departments are likely going to face “exceedingly challenging” situations in the months ahead that will require patience on the part of the public, he said.
“It’s certainly not easy waiting when you’re concerned about your child and waiting long periods of time and we certainly understand that,” Lim said.
“On the other side of the wall, you have a group of very dedicated health professionals that are doing their very best to be creative and to see patients as quickly and as safely as possible, often in very unconventional spaces, trying a whole bunch of ways to become more efficient and to see this huge load of patients that we’re seeing. But it’s extremely difficult for everyone involved.”
Lim added that he is also “extremely worried” about the next few months given that the recent patient surges are coming at a time when hospitals across Canada have already been dealing with acute staffing and bed shortages, which has led to significant levels of burnout among health workers.
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Banerji says she believes community and teaching hospitals outside of big centres may have to look at expanding their capacity to help swamped city children’s hospitals.
Masking requirements in schools may also have to be reintroduced if things don’t improve – especially with the recent uptick in RSV cases, she added.
“A lot of kids go to school, they’re being exposed to RSV, which might be just a mild infection for them, but they may be bringing it back to a lot of people at home… their younger infants, siblings,” Banerji said.
“And if we can protect these babies that would be really important during the RSV season.”
With files from Global News reporters Jamie Mauracher, Matthew Trevithick and Kalina Laframboise