Medevacs on the rise in Nunavut as respiratory virus returns to the territory

·2 min read
Dr. Francois de Wet is territorial chief of staff for Nunavut's Health Department. He's seeing more medevacs as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) returns to the territory.  (Beth Brown/CBC - image credit)
Dr. Francois de Wet is territorial chief of staff for Nunavut's Health Department. He's seeing more medevacs as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) returns to the territory. (Beth Brown/CBC - image credit)

There's been, on average, nine medevacs per day for people in Nunavut in need of urgent health care recently.

About two weeks ago, that number jumped to 23 in one day, in part due to a "resurgence" of bronchiolitis and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

"You can imagine that caused significant strain on our resources," said Dr. Francois de Wet, the chief of staff at Qikiqtani General Hospital and the territorial chief of staff for Nunavut's Health Department.

Medevacs, or medical evacuations, are common in the territory, which relies on small community health centres who refer patients to regional centres or southern hospitals as needed.

But, de Wet said it's not unusual in the territory; rather, it's a return to business as usual.

"One of the good things during COVID — if you can call anything with COVID good… — was the fact that the amount of sick children especially dropped significantly in that two years that we were under quarantine," de Wet said.

Now that travel restrictions have lifted, and masks are off, he says illnesses are on the rise, particularly respiratory illnesses.

"We have more people with infections of the lungs and throat now again than we've had the last two years."

That's one reason that Dr. Michael Patterson, Nunavut's chief public health officer, announced last week that the territory would resume its RSV immunization program for vulnerable infants.

"Typically we give it for a while and then once the disease burden settles, then we stop," said de Wet. "But because of the fact that it is going on longer this year than the previous year, we've decided to look at restarting that again."

Arviat hit hard

Some communities have been hit especially hard.

Between May 15-27, the hamlet of Arviat, Nuanvut, saw 16 medevacs, de Wet said.

He says that's not unusual given the high number of babies and young children in the community of about 3,000.

"It's not an unusual number for this time of the year. It's just unusual compared to the last two years."

Most medevacs are precautionary, de Wet said. Children, especially, can be sent to a larger centre if doctors or nurses are worried about them.

Asked about the nursing shortage, which has led to some health centre closures in Nunavut, de Wet said some residents may have noticed paramedics, who are trained to diagnose and treat specific illnesses, working at their local health centre.

He also points to the virtual nurse practitioner program, which allows patients to connect with nurses who have higher training to make diagnoses and prescribe medication.

But, he said, his department is actively recruiting more nurses.

As for what people can do immediately to cut down on the need for medevacs, he says wearing masks is a good idea, especially for those who are sick.

He also said people who are sick should stay home, rather than spread the illness.

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