‘We’re stretched physically… mentally’: Children’s Hospital ER medical director
Sunday’s patient count — many with respiratory viruses — highest in years, Shared Health says
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A surge of sick kids continued to overwhelm the Children’s Hospital emergency department over the weekend, spurring calls for health officials to address Manitobans amid the unprecedented patient load.
“We’re stretched right now. We’re stretched physically, we’re stretched mentally,” said Dr. Karen Gripp, Health Sciences Centre Children’s Hospital emergency department medical director. “We want to do our best to address what the needs are, we want to keep patients safe and we need to focus on the highest acuity.
“But that means that many of the lower-acuity patients need to wait,” she said. “But we’re so stretched right now we’re just not able to meet everyone’s wants and needs.”
On Sunday, 201 patients visited the ER, marking the highest, single-day patient count in “at least several years,” said Shared Health, the provincial authority responsible for the Health Sciences Centre.
Many of the children arriving at the hospital are dealing with respiratory symptoms and some are testing positive for multiple viruses. Currently, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is circulating widely alongside COVID-19 and influenza. An early start to cold-and-flu season has driven numbers to “unprecedented levels,” the health authority noted.
In the first two weeks of November, the emergency department saw about 175 patients a day, outpacing the record set in December 2019, when the department saw an average of about 170 youngsters daily. The ER is typically staffed for the capacity to treat about 100 patients a day.
Lung infections caused by RSV (known as bronchiolitis) led to 23 kids being hospitalized in October and another 12 thus far in November, including two in intensive care. On Monday, the pediatric ICU was one patient over capacity, and 54 infants were in the neonatal ICU, including 12 in isolation with a respiratory illness.
Shared Health said more than half, or about 114, of the children triaged Sunday were of high- to mid-acuity, and several required resuscitation.
Gripp, who worked 32 hours in the department over the weekend, said staff appreciate the concern and anxiety parents are experiencing, especially when faced with a lengthy wait. The hospital has called in extra support, opened additional contingency beds and is adapting its processes to move patients through faster, but there are limits, she said.
Hospital leaders are planning for patient volumes to continue to increase and remain high until March, she said.
“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” she said. “This is just a beginning of a much larger storm.”
At this point, postponing pediatric surgery is not part of the plan to manage patient volumes, Gripp said. Postponements would occur only under extraordinary circumstances, she said. Instead, the hospital is focused on increasing capacity, adapting to meet demand and educating families about when to visit emergency.
“We need to keep attention to staffing levels, but also the well-being of staff. There’s a limit to how many double shifts someone can work, because that has an effect on our health as well, and we ultimately want to be there for patients and parents,” she said.
Opposition health critic Uzoma Asagwara said the “crisis” at Children’s demands an appearance by officials, including chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin.
“We’re here today to call on the premier, the minister of health to stand alongside public health officials… in Manitoba and provide the information to Manitobans that Manitobans are asking for,” Asagwara said during a noon-hour news conference.
Parents and families want assurance that there is a plan ready to go to ensure their child will receive timely care if they become ill and the lack of communication is fuelling fears, the NDP MLA for Union Station said.
Asked whether an indoor mask mandate is needed to stem the spread of illness, Asagwara said it’s a question best answered by public-health officials.
“I think a lot of people are asking that question because we hadn’t heard from the premier, the minister of health what advice they’re getting from public-health experts in Manitoba,” Asagwara said.
“An opportunity like a press conference where the premier, the minister of health and public-health expertise are all together to provide information to Manitobans would answer that question.”
Masks help reduce the spread of viruses, as experienced during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gripp said. However, any recommendation to bring back mask mandates to relieve pressure at the hospital should come from public health, the physician said.
“The decision of whether we mandate masking in public places, it would be a decision left to public health, as there are other factors involved,” Gripp said. “But what I can share, is that it would likely make a difference.”
Premier Heather Stefanson, who was feeling well but recovering from a mild cold, donned a mask “out of an abundance of caution” during an announcement involving children Monday morning.
In a statement, Stefanson’s press secretary Olivia Billson said the government encourages Manitobans to get vaccinated for COVID-19 and influenza and to follow “the fundamentals to protect those most of risk,” but did not say if the premier agrees with the NDP’s call for a public-health update.
“Public health officials continue to provide updates to Manitobans in a variety of ways including social media posts and public awareness campaigns,” Billson said.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.