Two Ontario hospitals are opening COVID-19 clinics specifically for children this week in an effort to deal with rising infections that are expected to surge further as students return to school.
The Windsor Regional Hospital opened its pediatric COVID-19 clinic on Tuesday, while Michael Garron Hospital in East Toronto plans to reopen its assessment centre for children on Wednesday.
In Windsor, the hospital’s chief operating officer and nursing executive said the facility has seen a doubling of demand in pediatric testing over the last few weeks.
“With schools opening up, we wanted to make sure that we had enough capacity to handle the increased demand because we do expect that there’s going to be cohorts dismissed and there’s going to be an increased need for testing,” Karen Riddell said in an interview.
The hospital’s Paediatric Urgent Medical Assessment Clinic, which opened next to its emergency department, offers COVID-19 testing, urgent care medical assessment and vaccinations to those aged 17 and younger.
Riddell said the clinic is needed because the more transmissible Delta variant is spreading in the community, COVID-19 restrictions have eased, children born in 2010 or later are not yet eligible for vaccination, and youth sports have resumed.
“We’re planning for the worst, we’re hoping for the best,” Riddell said. “But the risk of exposure is certainly higher than it was in the previous school year.”
The clinic will be staffed by nurses and physicians and will help divert young patients away from the emergency department, Riddell said.
Fast testing will be important in identifying and stopping the spread of COVID-19 among children, she said.
“We always want to make sure that we’ve got that capacity for the same day, the next day,” she said. “And in order to do that we needed another assessment centre.”
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There was a huge demand for COVID-19 testing when schools resumed last September, largely driven by strict provincial protocols that required children to get assessed if they had certain symptoms.
Families in some areas waited in line all day to get tested before the province brought in an appointment-only system. The crush of tests also overwhelmed laboratories, which were taking days to return results in many cases.
In east Toronto, Michael Garron Hospital will be reopening its pediatric COVID-19 clinic on Wednesday in preparation for the return to school and the increased demand for testing that’s expected to bring.
It launched the clinic in late September last year and hopes it will see the same level of success this year, said Dr. Michael Charnish, an emergency physician and co-lead of the hospital’s Paediatric ED COVID-19 Assessment Zone.
“We realized last year that the pediatric population in our area needs their own assessment area, a spot that is family friendly, that they can come in and is less stressful,” Charnish said, noting that the clinic has its own entrance.
In addition to assessing children, the clinic can also test up to four members of a family at the same time, he said.
“These are real assessments, we check oxygen levels, talk to the patients and get the swabs done,” Charnish said. “But you’ll also pick up things that might not have been picked up before when you’re only looking for COVID. We’ve been able to find and treat ear infections and strep throat.”
The clinic will also offer oral-nasal swabs, which are far less intrusive than nasopharyngeal swabs, he said.
The hospital said it was able to decrease wait times in its emergency department last year with addition of the children’s clinic.
The program has been so successful that the facility is hoping to turn it into a permanent pediatric emergency department, Charnish said. This past weekend, he said, local families with their children came in to brainstorm how to make a kid-friendly emergency department.
“This seed of an idea — essentially just a COVID assessment area — is now blossoming into the concept of an entire zone that is family friendly and totally dedicated to evidence-based, excellent pediatric care,” Charnish said.
There are no walk-in appointments yet at the Windsor and Toronto clinics but both said same-day and next-day slots can be booked either online or over the phone.