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‘Reality is pretty bleak… for Canada’s children’s hospitals’

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As upper-respiratory viruses continue to send Manitoba children and their worried parents to hospitals, there are increasing calls for health officials to come up with a plan to deal with the emergency-ward crush.

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As upper-respiratory viruses continue to send Manitoba children and their worried parents to hospitals, there are increasing calls for health officials to come up with a plan to deal with the emergency-ward crush.

“The reality is pretty bleak right now for Canada’s children’s hospitals,” said Emily Gruenwoldt, the Ottawa-based president and CEO of Children’s Healthcare Canada.

“From coast to coast, quite literally, our children’s hospitals are all operating above standard occupancy rates.”

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There were 177 ER visits to Health Sciences Centre children’s hospital Sunday, a higher daily total than the average 145.8 visits per day for the month of October, Shared Health data shows.

The organization, along with children’s doctors and nurses at the Canadian Paediatric Society and Canadian Association of Paediatric Nurses, issued a call to action late last week, urging governments to “address the children’s health-care crisis.”

Gruenwoldt said higher volumes of sicker young kids are ending up in hospital largely because of viruses such as the flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) this fall. Across the country, pediatric units are too small — both in physical space and specialized staff — to meet this kind of “unprecedented” demand, she said.

The organization has been encouraged by the federal government’s work with manufacturers of children’s over-the-counter medication to address shortages, but there’s a lot more work to do. Some hospitals have added more pediatric ICU space or increased virtual consultations in an effort to meet the current demand, but the health-care system won’t be able to continually scale up capacity, Gruenwoldt said, noting some pediatric ICUs have been moving teenage patients to adult units to make more room for younger children.

“There are examples across the country where we are scaling up very quickly the capacity to deal with the most critically ill children.”

There were 177 ER visits to Health Sciences Centre children’s hospital Sunday, a higher daily total than the average 145.8 visits per day for the month of October, Shared Health data shows.

Respiratory illnesses are the primary reason for the visits, a Shared Health spokesman said.

Of Sunday’s 177 visits, only 14 were admitted.

The pediatric intensive-care unit at Health Sciences Centre was nearly full as of Monday morning, with young patients in eight of nine staffed beds. There were 46 babies in the neonatal intensive care unit, while the baseline capacity of the NICU is 50 beds.

Dr. Jared Bullard, section head of pediatric infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital, said he couldn’t speak to the facility’s ability to scale up critical-care capacity; his expertise is in what is sending so many kids there.

Bullard said the children’s ER is busier than usual because multiple viruses are circulating — particularly the flu (influenza A or H3N2 strain), and many children have never been infected before.

“They’re getting it for the first time, and any time you have what’s called a primary infection, we expect it to be more severe. It’s not that all children will get sick to the point where they need to be seen in the emergency (ward) or ultimately have to get admitted. But a portion will, so as a result, you’re seeing more (patients),” Bullard said.

COVID-19 is not a driver of hospitalizations among children; currently most hospitalized children who have COVID also have another illness. It’s important for parents to make sure kids are up to date on vaccines, including flu shots. The best way to prevent RSV is to wear a mask and wash hands, he said.

“If you’re sick, you need to stay home,” he said.

katie.may@winnipegfreepress.com

Katie May

Katie May
Reporter

Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.

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