Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones insisted Thursday that the government was prepared for a surge in respiratory illnesses in children this fall, as hospitals struggle with unprecedented demand for care made more challenging by continued staffing shortages.
"I want to give the people of Ontario reassurance that if your child is sick in the province of Ontario you are going to get the health care you deserve and you need, in a timely manner," Jones said at a morning news conference in Toronto.
Her comments come as a combination of flu, respiratory syncytial virus (more commonly known as RSV) and COVID-19 continue to put tremendous stress on under-staffed hospitals, though there are some early positive signs that the pressure could be easing somewhat.
Newly released data shows there are more children currently in intensive care across Ontario than available beds to care for them.
As of Thursday, there were 114 pediatric patients requiring intensive care in Ontario — two more than there were beds available. That's down from a peak of 122 one week ago.
Children 'struggling to breathe,' MPP says
Jones said that ahead of the fall respiratory virus season, Ontario Health and hospitals developed capacity plans. She also said that over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of pediatric intensive care beds in the province has risen by nearly 30 per cent.
She conceded that some hospitals are "doing business a little different" as they try to deal with an influx of children seeking care, but said she is proud of the "innovation that's happening" and of ongoing co-operation between health networks.
WATCH | SickKids under strain from respiratory illnesses:
At Queen's Park Thursday, Joel Harden, NDP MPP for Ottawa Centre, slammed the government for its stance as well for Bill 124, which limits raises for public sector workers.
Harden told the legislature he's married to a health-care professional at CHEO working with children "struggling to breathe."
"It's one thing to ask first responders and health care workers to sacrifice, which is what to they signed up to do every day ... but then it's another thing to tell us a story about how there's no significant problem here and how we're investing more money than ever before," Harden said.
"Because it doesn't correspond to the reality of the nurse or the doctor or the orderly or custodian holding the hand of the mom with the breathing tube in their kid's face."
Bring back mask mandates now, specialist says
The number of infants and children up to four years old going to hospital emergency departments with respiratory complaints remains more than twice the seasonal pre-pandemic average, according to Ontario's Acute Care Enhanced Surveillance (ACES) database.
The database tracks daily visits and admissions for respiratory illnesses, covering every major hospital in the province.
For those aged five to 17, it is nearly three times the seasonal pre-pandemic average.
That said, both figures have shown declines over the last week.
Dr. Anna Banerji, pediatric infectious diseases specialist at the University of Toronto's Temerty Faculty of Medicine, says governments across Canada need to step up, beginning with mask mandates.
"We have a crisis right now," she said. "The RSV season is starting, influenza season is starting and we have ICUs at maximum capacity."
Banerji cited a recent example at the Ottawa Children's Hospital, CHEO, where seven children had to be resuscitated within a two-day period.
"What we should be doing is mandating masks, especially for children at school. Everyone's afraid to touch mask mandates but we're talking about children being put in ICUs."
From a peak of 1,134 on Nov. 9, the seven-day average of five to 17 year olds presenting at hospitals with respiratory symptoms dropped to 824 on Nov. 16. The drop for newborns to four year olds has been less pronounced, with the seven-day average is down to 1,110 from a peak of 1,263 on Nov. 11.
Ontario surpasses 15,000 COVID-linked deaths
Jones said Thursday morning it appears the province is seeing a slowdown in the rate of increase of children seeking hospital care for respiratory symptoms.
"I am not going to presuppose that that means we are coming to a plateau, but we are seeing a slowing down of the percentage increase," she told reporters, adding that a majority of pediatric patients in ICUs are there due to RSV.
Meanwhile, Ontario reported another 105 deaths of people with COVID-19 over the past seven days, down from 138 the week before. Only two children in intensive care have COVID-19.
That brings the official number of deaths associated with the virus to 15,087, surpassing 15,000 for the first time.
Test positivity also dropped slightly Thursday to 10.7 per cent from 11.5 per cent at the same time last week. Positivity rates can vary depending on the number of people who test for the virus. This past January, the province moved to limit PCR testing to high-risk populations and settings only.
The number of people hospitalized with the virus fell from 1,722 last Wednesday to 1,390, however ICU admissions remain about the same as last week, at 54 from 55.