Region prepares for respiratory illness rush, EMS chief worries of more code blacks

Windsor-Essex health officials are warning of an increase in respiratory illness in the region. The head of Essex-Windsor EMS says he's concerned the strain it may have on the availability of emergency vehicles.  (Mike Evans/CBC - image credit)
Windsor-Essex health officials are warning of an increase in respiratory illness in the region. The head of Essex-Windsor EMS says he's concerned the strain it may have on the availability of emergency vehicles. (Mike Evans/CBC - image credit)

Local health officials are warning of a busier than usual upcoming respiratory illness season that has the head of Windsor-Essex's EMS services worried that emergency services may continue to see code blacks.

Chief Bruce Krauter says an emergency declaration issued Oct. 17 has now been reduced to a "monitor mode" when it comes to the availability of emergency services in the region.

"So actually the emergency declaration is there, but it's not at the readiness state of a full emergency declaration. We're monitoring the situation," Krauter said on CBC's Windsor Morning Thursday.

It means there's been an improvement in availability, but code red or code blacks are still occurring.

Code red status refers to times when there are just two ambulances available, and code black means no ambulances are free.

"So we had a few on Sunday night, our call volume spiked there's some bad accidents and bad calls and we went into code black and they were minutes long, two or three minutes long, and then we got back into having ambulances available," said Krauter, adding another occurrence happened on Monday.

"What's concerning to me is just the level of call volume that's we're seeing increase over the period and as we get into this cold and flu [season] what ... resources are being used."

LISTEN | Hear more from Krauter on how Essex-Windsor EMS is working to keep ambulances available:

Respiratory illness on the rise

Medical officials across Windsor-Essex issued a joint statement Thursday, warning of the increase in respiratory illnesses.

"Relative to previous years, the seasonal flu virus is spreading more quickly and aggressively and our COVID-19 vaccination rates continue to lag behind the provincial average," read the statement.

The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit, local hospitals, medical and pharmacy associations all warned about the strain this will have system-wide.

"Our teams work extremely hard to care for the sick and protect the health of all — but we need your help," they said.

During a briefing held Thursday, the health unit said that 11 per cent of all patients presenting at the hospital have some sort of respiratory issue. Particularly hard hit, however, are children.

Medical officer of health Dr. Shanker Nesathurai said that about one-third of those under the age of 18 presenting at emergency departments in the region have respiratory syndromes, and half of them are under the age of four.

"There's a greater proportion of young people presenting with respiratory illness to the emergency department and that gives us some inferences and some insight into the burden of disease overall in the community," Nesathurai said.

David Musyj, CEO of Windsor Regional Hospital, pointed toward an already grim situation with hospital beds, saying that in October, the number of patients waiting for inpatient beds on stretchers in the emergency department is on average 30 per day. That compares to seven people waiting in the same time period in 2019.

"That number keeps escalating," Musyj said, adding that as of 10 a.m. Thursday, the number across both campuses was 37.

Musyj said the number of people catching influenza, COVID-19 and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), one of the most common causes of childhood illness and causes respiratory illnesses in all age groups, is projected to start increasing now.

McMaster University
McMaster University

He said the flu hit earlier and harder than normal in Australia and that serves as a prediction of what could happen here.

In the month of October, the hospital saw eight patients admitted for influenza, 41 positive cases of RSV and 71  COVID-19 cases coming to the hospital.

"Our worst part of influenza and RSV will be hitting in the month of December, right around Christmas time," he said.

"COVID itself... were projecting our worst part of COVID will hit in January."

Individuals are once again asked to stay up to date with vaccinations including for flu and COVID-19.

"Our goal is to try and minimize that impact as much as we can," Nesathurai said. "For the ones that we can have a vaccine that can mitigate the burden of illness, we want people to get the vaccine, that would be my core message."

EMS working with hospitals on capacity issues

Meanwhile, Krauter says Essex-Windsor EMS has taken more actions to ensure the availability of emergency vehicles on local roads.

"We started with a navigator into the dispatch centre to help assist the communicators on moving the ambulances to the right spot, so that we could get them offloaded in a timely fashion," he said.

EMS is also working with local hospitals to better move the flow of patients and work on capacity issues.

Krauter says individuals can help by knowing when is the right time to call for an ambulance. He says any life-threatening issues — including chest pains, hits to the head, or severe trauma as examples — mean you should call in the emergency.

Issues that may be ongoing may be best suited for a primary care physician or walk-in clinic.

Dale Molnar/CBC
Dale Molnar/CBC

He says it is a myth that taking an ambulance to the hospital means you'll be treated sooner.

"One of our mitigating factors is, if you're low acuity and ambulance does transport, we will move you right into the waiting room tell the triage nurse that you're in the waiting room waiting for care," said Krauter.

"So you're not going to get a cut in front of the line. You're not going to see a physician anytime sooner if you go by ambulance. But if you are life threatening or you're having signs of a stroke, if you're having signs of cardiac, definitely call an ambulance and we will be there."