Staff struggling to cope with wall-to-wall patients in Children’s Hospital ER

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An overflowing waiting room, kids coughing “everywhere” and tremendous staff is how Manitoba parents are describing the Children’s Hospital’s overrun emergency room, which is on pace for a record number of visits.

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An overflowing waiting room, kids coughing “everywhere” and tremendous staff is how Manitoba parents are describing the Children’s Hospital’s overrun emergency room, which is on pace for a record number of visits.

The Winnipeg hospital is trying to cope with a surge in ER arrivals and admissions, fuelled by a barrage of illnesses, including respiratory syncytial virus, influenza and COVID-19.

Winnipeg father Mark Behrendt was “shocked” by how busy the ER was and “amazed” by kind, patient staff when he visited with his eight-year-old daughter Friday.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Children’s Hospital’s emergency room at Health Sciences Centre is on pace for a record number of visits.

“I don’t know how sustainable that’s going to be, to be overloaded,” he said Wednesday. “As a parent, it looked really busy, and I just hope, systemically, we can figure out how to alleviate that for the staff and make sure there’s space for the children.”

After she had a temporary cast placed on her broken arm, they waited six hours in an ER treatment room until a private room opened for his daughter, who is immune-deficient. She later underwent surgery.

The ER seemed to be “normal busy” while they waited, said Behrendt, but it was a lot busier when he passed through at 7 p.m.

“Every single space they could put people in the waiting room, they were putting people. There wasn’t physical space to put people anymore,” he said . “There were sick kids everywhere — coughing, lethargic and puking.”

Doctors and nurses were doing their best, and the care for his daughter was “very good,” he said.

Justin Beaudry, from Winnipeg, has visited the ER twice with his two children in the last month.

His five-month-old daughter had RSV when she was taken to Children’s on October 26th.

“She was gasping for air,” said Beaudry. “It was a little scary.”

They were in the ER for seven hours from about midnight. The baby was given medication to ease her breathing difficulties.

On Sunday, Beaudry took his three-year-old son to the hospital after the boy’s fever climbed to 40.5 C. The wait was about three hours during the daytime visit.

A doctor told Beaudry his son had a virus and to bring him back if the fever didn’t break within days.

“The difference from earlier in October to Sunday, there were probably three times as many people waiting (Sunday). It was pretty packed,” he said. “A lot of coughing. Not the best place to be.”

The “fantastic” staff were patient and understanding, he said.

Health-care professions have warned immune systems are more susceptible to circulating viruses after a lengthy period of COVID-19 pandemic precautions.

The rise in respiratory illnesses has Children’s on pace to set a new monthly record for ER visits, said a spokesman for Shared Health, which operates the Health Sciences Centre, where the facility is located.

An average of 179.6 patients per day have visited, as of Wednesday. The current high of 170.3 was set in December 2019, although digital records date back only to 2010. There was a particularly bad RSV and flu season three years ago, the spokesman said.

Visits are up about 23 per cent from October and 45 per cent from November 2021.

As of Tuesday, the hospital is again admitting children from Nunavut and northwestern Ontario who require critical care. The hospital suspended the practice in August when its ICU was swamped.

Shared Health is asking parents to consider taking less-severely sick and injured kids to other facilities, including walk-in clinics and urgent-care centres.

Immunizations for influenza and COVID-19 should be up to date, the spokesman said.

Children who are having difficulty breathing, extremely fatigued or unable to consume fluids should go to the ER.

To cope with the situation, staff are being asked to work extra shifts or overtime. Employees from other areas were temporarily reassigned to the pediatric intensive-care unit.

Immunosuppressed patients and non-infectious patients with various medical complexities continue to share the child cancer ward.

Doctors Manitoba is “very concerned” about the rising numbers, a spokesman said.

Jason Linklater, president of the Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals, said specialized professions, such as respiratory therapists, are “stretched thin.”

“Allied health professionals are struggling with escalating staffing shortages and burnout, all while knowing that patient safety is at risk as workloads increase,” he said in a statement. “With kids going back to school in September after years of a pandemic, a sharp increase in flus, COVID and respiratory viruses was inevitable, but there is no plan to deal with it.”

The impact of an over-capacity ER spills over into child intensive-care units, he noted.

Health Minister Audrey Gordon, who attended a conference for Canada’s health ministers in Vancouver this week, wasn’t available for an interview, a spokesman said.

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said virus prevention efforts must be stepped up.

“We’re seeing more children in ICUs and that is concerning,” he said in a statement. “We need basic public health measures in schools, child-care centres and on buses to reduce the surge — vaccinations, CO2 monitors, ventilation and a public messaging campaign.”

Amid slowing COVID-19 vaccine uptake, the province has launched campaigns encouraging people to get their coronavirus and flu shots.

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority lists ER and urgent-care wait times on its website. The tracker stopped working for about three hours due to “technical difficulties” Wednesday.

chris.kitching@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @chriskitching

Chris Kitching
Reporter

As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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Updated on Wednesday, November 9, 2022 8:22 PM CST: Tweaks sentence

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