ERs face unprecedented demand as respiratory season, traumas increase

The Queensway Carleton Hospital says it saw its busiest day in nearly 50 years on Tuesday and was operating at 113 per cent capacity. (Francis Ferland/CBC - image credit)
The Queensway Carleton Hospital says it saw its busiest day in nearly 50 years on Tuesday and was operating at 113 per cent capacity. (Francis Ferland/CBC - image credit)

Hospitals across Ottawa and the Outaouais say they're struggling to meet a surge in demand as a tidal wave of sick individuals show up at their emergency department doors.

On Tuesday, the Queensway Carleton Hospital (QCH) said it had experienced the busiest day in its 47-year history.

"I almost equate it to like a MASH [Mobile Army Surgical Hospital] unit. There [were] people everywhere," said Lianne Learmonth, director of medicine at the hospital.

The emergency department was so full, she said, some patients didn't have a specific area in which to wait.

"We had to kind of go find which little corner they were sitting in," she told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning on Friday.

Hospitals over-capacity across region

The hospital said it admitted 361 patients that day and still had 32 people in the emergency department waiting to be admitted.

The Ottawa Hospital, for its part, said earlier this week it had to prepare several "temporary unconventional spaces for patients."

Between the Civic and General campuses, the hospital was at 105.1 per cent capacity as of Friday afternoon.

Montfort Hospital said its emergency department reached unprecedented wait times earlier this week, but the situation had calmed slightly by Friday when the hospital was at 97 per cent capacity.

The situation is similar in the Outaouais. Out of six hospitals in the region, only one's emergency department — Pontiac Hospital — didn't have its stretcher occupancy rate above 100 per cent as of Friday afternoon.

The other five hospitals — Hull, Gatineau, Papineau, Wakefield and Maniwaki — all ranged between 100 per cent and 172 per cent stretcher occupancy at various points in the day.

Respiratory illness partly to blame

Winter tends to be a busier season for hospitals typically, thanks to respiratory illnesses and more cases involving trauma, The Ottawa Hospital wrote in a Twitter thread earlier this week.

While local hospitalizations related to COVID-19 decreased to 26, according to a Friday update from Ottawa Public Health (OPH), Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches said COVID, influenza and RSV are all still prominent in the community.

That's a message she's trying to get across to people who falsely believe COVID isn't still a serious illness.

"[COVID] is still a leading cause of death and there are populations at greater risk of death. If you're immunocompromised, if you are older, you know, people in populations that have lower incomes, we're seeing higher rates of mortality," she told CBC.

Sarah Kester/CBC
Sarah Kester/CBC

On Friday, Ottawa also reached a grim milestone: 1,000 deaths tied to COVID-19.

Etches said the way to reduce the burden of COVID patients on the hospital system is for those most at risk from severe illness to seek treatment, such as visiting a pharmacy, within the first five days after showing symptoms.

"That treatment needs to be done early to have the greatest impact," she said, adding that doesn't mean people who need emergency care shouldn't go to a hospital.

"If those symptoms aren't getting better, if you're having trouble breathing, if your underlying health condition is worsening, the sooner you get treatment the better."

For those who have respiratory symptoms but don't need emergency care, the QCH recommends people make an appointment at the West Ottawa Clinical Assessment Centre at 2625 Draper Ave.

People who wait until they're seriously ill are also driving the high capacity rates.

"Sometimes they just wait too long. Maybe if they'd come earlier they wouldn't have been in intensive care. They might have needed a few days on a medicine unit, you know, to get some medication and recover," said Learmonth.