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IWK emergency department sees downturn in patient volume since earlier spike

The IWK emergency department was inundated with patients earlier this month, but patient volume seems to have eased off, says the interim ER chief. (Ryan Wilson/IWK - image credit)
The IWK emergency department was inundated with patients earlier this month, but patient volume seems to have eased off, says the interim ER chief. (Ryan Wilson/IWK - image credit)

The IWK emergency department is getting a reprieve after being inundated with sick kids due to a spike in cases of respiratory illness earlier in December.

Dr. Emma Burns, the interim chief of the emergency department at the IWK health centre, said there has been a downturn in patient numbers over the past two weeks or so.

But, she's not quite sure why.

"I wish I knew. I always worry that it's because people are staying away when they need to come and see us," she said.

"I also wonder if the Christmas break has just brought us a bit of a circuit breaker in terms of transmission of infections through schools and through gatherings of children at other extracurricular activities."

Type A influenza spiked higher and earlier this year than it usually does. In late November, cases across the province rose steadily until they reached a peak of 686 new cases the first full week of December. Since then, the number of cases has been dropping. Last week, there were 235 new cases of Type A influenza.

Hospitals are also dealing with other respiratory illnesses, including respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), enterovirus/rhinovirus, parainfluenza and adenovirus and COVID-19.

Hard to predict what's next

While the volume of patients has decreased, Burns says the acuity of patients — meaning the severity of symptoms — has not changed as much. Staff continue to see children who have respiratory illnesses, those who have been struggling through days of fever, as well as other conditions that pediatric hospitals see year-round.

Burns said there are usually a few months when the department is very busy, then there's a downturn in the number of patients. But she was reluctant to predict what may be next for the busy ER.

"I feel like making any prediction will just prove me wrong. The patterns over the last two to three years have been completely unpredictable and I really have no idea what's just around the corner."

The IWK emergency department still has extra staff on hand to accommodate higher numbers of patients, Burns said, but it does struggle with staff having to take time off due to their own sickness or illness in their families. She said the department is also affected by a lack of experienced nurses, because they sometimes move to locations that are less intense, or where they do not have to work night shifts.

Burns said families should not hesitate to bring sick kids to the emergency department if they need help.

"The wait times aren't as bad as they have been and so I hope people feel comfortable coming if they feel that they need to."

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