6th COVID wave impacting children’s hospitals, doctor says

As Canada’s sixth wave of COVID-19 continues, hospitals caring for the country’s youngest patients are facing both high patient volumes and high levels of staff off sick.

SickKids Emergency Department head, Dr. Jason Fischer at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children says roughly 10 to 30 per cent of staff are off daily since the pandemic hit.

Fischer says that because kids aged five and under are unvaccinated, they have to be conservative with letting the staff back to the workplace – especially since they deal with immunocompromised children.

“We’re experiencing really high volumes of patients right now – that almost exceeds our pre-pandemic volumes,” Fischer said on CTV’s Your Morning.

At Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, the emergency room is now filled not just with children impacted by COVID-19 but other seasonal viruses, Fischer says. He believes a root cause of busier emergency rooms to be a lack of access to care.

“So a lot of families are struggling to see their primary care physician, their family doctor or pediatrician,” he said. “And they’re also having trouble accessing local services like their local emergency department, which is also overcrowded.”

Fischer advises parents to take advantage of online medical resources including virtual triage to determine whether to bring their children to the hospital or keep them at home. He also warned of increased wait times at the Hospital for Sick Children’s emergency room.

“We also want families to remember that our emergency department is built and staffed to work safely for a number of patients and when it becomes overcrowded … we need to see the sickest patients first, and this leads to increased wait times.”

There were more than 7,000 total emergency visits at the hospital in April 2019. The number of visits dipped in April 2020, during the early days of the pandemic, but they are rising again. Nearly 4,000 young patients showed up in the first half of April this year, Fischer said, at an average rate of 222 visits each day that’s roughly the same as before the pandemic.

However, SickKids is now also dealing with staff shortages.

According to the hospital, roughly 10 to 30 per cent of staff were off sick on any given day throughout the two Omicron waves – and hospital rules require them to stay at home for 10 days till their recovery.

“We need to ensure that our emergency department is safe not only for patients that are unvaccinated from the zero to five age group but also for those that are at high risk,” said Fischer.

“The last thing we want is for our emergency department to become unsafe for those that need to use it.”

Across Canada, vaccination rates remain low among youth. The latest country-wide data shows just 40 per cent of kids aged five to 11 are fully vaccinated, while younger children don’t yet have access to an approved vaccine.

Children under the age of five remain the only age group in Canada without access to vaccines designed to protect against the virus.

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