Long lineups of parents and sick children could be seen trailing out of the doors of the emergency department of Alberta Children’s Hospital on Monday and Tuesday.
One parent told Global News that the wait for emergency care for her child was “overwhelming.” Another parent said they had been waiting for five hours in a shorter lineup on Wednesday.
During the COVID-19 update, Health Minister Jason Copping admitted the hospital system across the province is under duress.
“We’re seeing the equivalent of yet another winter peak in patient volumes, especially in EMS and in emergency departments. The numbers overall remain in line with past years, but occupancy at a few large sites is well over 100 per cent,” Copping said.
An Alberta Health Services spokesperson said the same factors affecting hospitals across the province – high volumes of seriously ill patients, the increased demand for hospitalization due to COVID-19 and staff absences — are also impacting the Alberta Children’s Hospital.
The need to isolate patients with influenza-like symptoms is eating up much of the indoor space in hospitals, to allow for safe distancing.
“And while some periods of very high occupancy are normal, this is not a normal year,” the health minister admitted.
Dr. Stephen Freedman, a professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at the Cumming School of Medicine, is also not seeing a “normal year” in emergency rooms.
“I think we’re actually seeing a little bit of a combination of what we worried about in the fall of 2020 or winter of 2020-2021, which is that COVID would be peaking at the same time as influenza would be peaking, as well as other childhood viral illnesses, such as bronchiolitis, for example,” Freedman told Global News.
While the fears of what would happen in hospitals with coincident waves of COVID-19 and influenza never were realized, Freedman said the lifting of the majority of pandemic public health measures has created a “perfect storm.”
“What we’ve seen this spring – which is an unusual time – is a late surge of influenza combined with very high cases of COVID circulating in our community.”
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw used the weekly COVID-19 briefing to provide an update on the late arrival of flu season.
“We are experiencing a rise in seasonal influenza with levels higher than they have been at any time in the past two years,” she said.
“That’s combined to create a little bit of a perfect storm in terms of numbers, volume and acuity,” Freedman said. “Combined also with the fact that a lot of children haven’t seen a lot of viruses for two or three years, so they are now more predisposed to becoming sick, being more ill with those given viruses.”
The ER doctor said there is “clearly” a connection between the lifting of the public health measures and the increased circulation of COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses.
That’s resulting in longer wait times when parents bring kids to the emergency room.
“The families that I’ve been seeing have been waiting eight or nine hours. They have been incredibly tolerant, understanding and thankful for being seen when they are being seen,” he said. “But we do need families to realize that it may be a while before children with lower acuity presentations are actually evaluated.”
While Freedman hasn’t seen the data tracked by AHS breaking down the age of patients coming through the children’s hospital emergency room, he’s noted some trends.
“We are definitely seeing more children in the two to five year old age range with respiratory illnesses that are more unwell than we typically would see at that age with these type of illnesses,” he said.
Freedman said croup, an illness that usually affects children under two, has shown up in children between four and seven years old.
He also noted that a lot of Albertan children over five are unvaccinated against COVID-19. According to provincial data, only 49 per cent of children five to 11 have received one dose, and only 33.8 per cent have received two doses.
Children under five are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, but that may change following Moderna’s application to have Health Canada review their doses designed for children aged six months to five years old.
And while there is an influenza immunization available, Hinshaw acknowledged a wrinkle in that protection.
“We know that the influenza A virus that is currently circulating is one that’s not ideally matched to the vaccine that was used this season…We know that in the past the effectiveness of influenza vaccine kind of ranges year to year,” she said.
Hinshaw said all of the well-known protections used through the pandemic to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are also effective against influenza, like the proper use of masks and washing hands.
Freedman and the AHS spokesperson both said the hospital staff are doing their best to reduce wait times.
“The triage nurses who are the front-line providers and assessing all the children for acuity are doing everything they can to minimize any delays or lineups,” Freedman said. “And we are working really as a team to optimize our flow and do everything that we possibly can to see the number of children that are seeking care.”
In an email, AHS spokesperson James Wood said the health authority is working on ways to bring any outside queues indoors.
“Our goal is to ensure all people are inside and waiting as short a time as possible,” Wood said. “The sickest patients will always be seen first.”
Freedman also urged parents to seek medical help from their family doctor if possible or call 811 to determine if a trip to the ER is truly required.
–with files from Heather Yourex-West and Lauren Pullen, Global News