CHEO emergency department hit with wave of young patients

·2 min read
July and August each saw all-time highs for the number of visits to CHEO's emergency department, while September's figures were more in line with what's seen during the peak flu season. (Francis Ferland/CBC - image credit)
July and August each saw all-time highs for the number of visits to CHEO's emergency department, while September's figures were more in line with what's seen during the peak flu season. (Francis Ferland/CBC - image credit)

Eastern Ontario's pediatric hospital says it's been deluged with young patients as viruses kept at bay by pandemic measures re-emerge in the community.

July and August each saw more than 6,000 visits to CHEO's emergency department, setting new monthly records, the hospital said.

In September, nearly 6,700 patients arrived at the ER, a figure more in line with the peak virus season, which normally lasts from November until March or April.

"Where we would [normally] be peak season in the fall and the winter, we're seeing those numbers now," said Tammy DeGiovanni, the hospital's senior vice-president of clinical services and chief nurse executive.

"The department waits have been long. We're also trying to keep people separated and safe and maintaining distance," she said. "That does create some extra waits as well."

Kids exposed to viruses

The unseasonably high numbers at CHEO are due in part to children contracting certain illnesses they don't generally catch until later in the fall, including colds and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), DeGiovanni said.

"Our hypothesis is that we do have a whole cohort of children that really haven't been exposed to viruses in the community throughout the pandemic," she said.

Specialists in infectious diseases have noted that the public health measures enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic have meant children haven't built up certain antibodies they normally would — and therefore don't have the same immunity.

For CHEO, that meant a lot of sick children arrived after summer camps and other social activities resumed, including the first days and weeks of in-person school, DeGiovanni said.

Many infants and toddlers have already shown up with RSV, a virus that causes symptoms such as wheezing, lethargy and a persistent cough. Typically, that wouldn't happen until late fall or winter, she said.

CHEO not alone

CHEO isn't the only children's hospital dealing with a surge in young patients.

It's a similar story in Toronto, with the emergency department at SickKids reporting a 40 per cent rise in patients in August 2021 compared to the same time last year.

August is normally that hospital's slowest month. Another Toronto facility, St. Joseph's Health Centre, also reported its children's clinic has been busier than before the pandemic, and was hitting capacity daily.

While kids under 12 still can't be vaccinated against COVID-19, anyone six months and older can get a flu shot — a preventative measure DeGiovanni urged parents to seek out.

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