For the first time since the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, the city's two main hospitals are locking down children's units following a spike in respiratory infections.
On Friday, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (WRHA) announced that only parents would be allowed to visit patients at Health Sciences Centre's Children's Hospital. St. Boniface General Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit has the same restriction in order to reduce the risk of more infants being exposed to respiratory infections.
The restrictions are also in place at the labour, delivery and postpartum units at St. B and HSC.
Some elective (non-emergency) pediatric surgeries have already been cancelled, and officials say some adult surgeries may also be postponed in the coming days due to outbreaks of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza.
Dr. Brock Wright, chief medical officer for the WRHA, said Friday a high number of respiratory illnesses has caused the system to deploy many more temporary beds than usual. The bed shortage has also caused patients with medical problems to be moved to surgical wards, opening the possibility surgeries will be cancelled. Meanwhile, hospital emergency departments have been inundated recently.
"Those are all indicators that the system is pretty stressed," Wright said.
At Children's Hospital, emergency room visits have soared to about 175 per day in recent weeks, compared with a normal 110 to 120 -- mainly due to an increase in kids suffering from respiratory illnesses. Earlier this week, officials said visits to the city's six ERs, excluding Children's, had surged to between 800 and close to 1,000 a day -- from an average 600 in October and November.
The vast majority of kids arriving at the ER at Children's in recent weeks have been sent home rather than being admitted to hospital, said Dr. Cheryl Rockman-Greenberg, medical director of the WRHA's child health program. Yet, she said increased admissions have forced Children's Hospital to cancel some elective surgeries this week because of a shortage of post-operative beds.
RSV is the leading cause of bronchiolitis in children under two years of age. In babies less than 12 months old, the virus can be very serious. It is contagious and can be spread easily.
The intermediate care nursery at HSC is currently experiencing a respiratory outbreak, with one confirmed case of influenza A, officials said Friday. Right now, eight babies are showing such symptoms as coughing and runny noses. There are 21 kids in the unit all told.
In order to reduce the risk of other infants being exposed to that virus, the HSC closed the ward to further admissions and opened a temporary 14-bed unit Friday in another section of the hospital.
"The children who are there have already been exposed so they will remain in the nursery until they are discharged," said Rockman-Greenberg, adding all the babies are stable.
Five pediatric patients are also currently in isolation in Children's Hospital after potentially being exposed to chicken pox from a visitor who had not yet been diagnosed. Infection prevent and control practices mandate that these children, who, though suffering from other illnesses and conditions, have not developed any sign of infection, remain separate from other patients for approximately two weeks.
Meanwhile, the WRHA has informed hospital authorities in northwestern Ontario of the situation in Winnipeg and has encouraged them, if possible, to send babies who need extra care to facilities in eastern Ontario.