Pediatric ICUs remain above capacity, Ontario data shows

TORONTO — Ontario had more children in ICU than the system is built to handle for five of the past eight days, and the province only added three new beds in the last three months, newly released data shows.

There are currently 114 children in ICUs, two more than the total number of beds available, provincial figures released Thursday show. Only two children in intensive care have COVID-19.

The overcapacity pediatric ICUs come as children's hospitals have been reporting huge surges in pediatric intensive care admissions largely due to the flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.

Major children's hospitals like the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and CHEO in Ottawa have cancelled non-urgent surgeries in order to redeploy staff to the hardest hit parts: the emergency department, ICU and pediatric wards.

Health Minister Sylvia Jones said Thursday that the rate of increase in respiratory illnesses driving the surge in pediatric hospitalizations appears to be slowing down, but did not cite data on the issue.

"I would say that what we are seeing is a slowing down of the increase," she said at a news conference. "I'm not going to presuppose that that means we are coming to a plateau, but we are seeing a slowing down of the percentage increase, which is a good sign."

The government anticipated a worse flu and RSV season and increased pediatric ICU capacity by 30 per cent, Jones said.

But the provincial data shows only three ICU beds were added to the system in the past three months, on Oct. 25. The previous increase came on July 25 when four beds were added.

Jones's office did not respond to a request to explain the discrepancy.

The director of an ICU at a Toronto hospital scoffed at Jones's statement on surge planning.

"If they were planning for a surge, they did not expect patients to land in the ICU given that they only added three beds to the entire system," said Dr. Michael Warner of Michael Garron Hospital.

The numbers of children in intensive care is frightening, he said.

"We don't know what the staffing levels are, we don't know whether there's adequate staff to support those 112 beds or hopefully those 114 patients," Warner said.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore has said the entire pediatric system is at capacity and he doesn't expect respiratory season to peak until early to mid-December.

Jones tried to assuage fears about the overwhelmed pediatric health-care system on Thursday.

"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," she said.

But several mothers of young babies took umbrage with Jones' words.

Alana Kayfetz said she was at SickKids in Toronto two weeks ago with her medically fragile two-year-old boy who has a rare genetic disorder that leaves him vulnerable to illnesses. He has already had several heart surgeries, Kayfetz said.

Normally, her son is seen quite quickly at the hospital. But her last visit for her son having difficulty breathing saw them arrive at the ER at 6 p.m. but only get admitted at 5 a.m. the next day.

The emergency department was packed, she said.

"It's a really scary time to be a parent, and it's a scary time to be a caregiver in general because it's very confusing about what to do when your kid is sick right now," Kayfetz said.

"I feel let down by the province. Parents are bearing the brunt of this crisis, which is out of our control and we feel helpless."

She had planned to bring her boy down to Queen's Park to protest the government's handling of the health-care crisis, but couldn't because her son was sick.

More than a dozen mothers with their babies dropped by the legislature between nap time on Thursday for a "play-in" to protest the province's handling of the health-care system.

"I'm also really concerned about the lack of ER capacity," said Shannon Blake, who was with her bundled-up nine-month-old boy.

"It's a really common experience as a parent with a young kid that something happens and they can't tell you what's wrong, they have an accident or whatever and you need to go to the ER, and it's really terrifying to feel like that care might not be there," she said.

"I don't think Ontarians should accept this."

Beatrice Copps showed up with her six-month-old son. She wants the government to implement a mask mandate to help reduce the spread of respiratory illnesses, saying it would help ease some of her worries.

She built her own air purifier that she hooks up to her stroller when the pair leave home, which isn't all that often as she tries to protect her young boy.

Copps said the current situation has left her constantly anxious.

"If something, God forbid, happened to my baby, would we be able to get medical care?" she said. "It's all very worrisome."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 17, 2022.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press