With respiratory infections hitting the health system hard, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Wednesday that more children need to get their COVID-19 and influenza shots to keep a lid on surging hospital admissions.
Speaking at a vaccine clinic in Ottawa, Duclos said Canada is in the throes of a so-called "tripledemic" with COVID-19, flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in circulation.
"Our children are suffering from all sorts of viruses. Our pediatric hospitals are overwhelmed. Our health care workers are very tired," Duclos said.
To help, Duclos said, parents should get their kids the shots they need to avoid serious illness, hospitalization and death.
"Now is the time to get vaccinated," he said. "The fall is going to be increasingly difficult."
The country's pediatric hospitals are facing serious capacity issues.
Data published by Critical Care Services Ontario shows just how stretched pediatric hospitals are in the country's largest province. On some days this month, there have been more children in ICUs than the system is built to handle.
These admissions are largely due to the flu and RSV, a respiratory infection that impedes airways. Data suggests there are currently few COVID-related ICU admissions among children.
RSV is a common seasonal infection and the vast majority of cases are mild.
But this year, the number of children falling ill — and seriously ill — is significantly higher than usual.
According to Ontario's Acute Care Enhanced Surveillance (ACES) database, the number of kids ages 0 to four who have come to hospital emergency rooms with respiratory complaints is more than double the seasonal average.
The numbers are even more alarming among children aged 5 to 17 — their levels are three times higher than what they've been historically.
COVID-related policies like mandatory masking and social distancing have kept most kids reasonably healthy over the last two years.
Doctors suspect that children who ordinarily would have been exposed to RSV over the last few years were insulated from it and are now driving up the numbers.
There's no vaccine widely available for RSV but kids who are six months of age and older are generally eligible for a flu shot.
In some provinces, kids must get a shot from a doctor or nurse practitioner or a local public health unit clinic; pharmacies are usually not an option for flu shots for the very young.
"Now is the time to reach out to your public health units, your family doctors," said Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, who was on hand for Duclos' announcement.
"With all the viruses adding up, RSV, flu, everything we do to prevent transmission, including vaccination and wearing masks indoors — it makes a difference," she said.
COVID vaccine takeup is still very low in the 0-to-4 age cohort.
Federal data suggests only 7.3 per cent of these young people have had a dose. Just 2.4 per cent of people aged 0 to 4 have completed the primary series of the vaccine — the first two shots of mRNA products like those offered by Moderna and Pfizer.
While young people are less likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19, doctors have said getting the vaccine can protect the child and others, reducing the chance they'll transmit the virus to others — including family members and friends who may be more susceptible to severe consequences from the infection.