Medical experts in Edmonton are seeing more patients with respiratory illnesses be admitted to hospital than in previous years and say the respiratory illness season has also hit earlier than usual.
“We’re full,” Dr. Carina Majaesic, medical director of the Stollery Children’s Hospital, said Tuesday. “But we also make extra space when we are full.”
She said that means young patients may have longer waits in the emergency department until space can be found.
“We have spaces that we can overflow into.”
“We definitely are seeing more patients than normal,” Majaesic said. “We’re definitely up, as are our wait times.”
Read more: Rise in respiratory illnesses triggers long wait times at Alberta Children’s Hospital, Stollery
She said seeing respiratory viruses in the fall and winter season is normal, but what’s unusual this year is how many patients there are and how early those patients have presented.
“This is maybe unprecedented and you see that across the country as well.”
Respiratory illness season typically lasts eight to 12 weeks, said Dr. Christopher Sikora, Alberta Health Services’ medical officer of health for the Edmonton zone. But that’s in “normal times.”
“Now, we have COVID and influenza and other respiratory illnesses. I can’t predict (the duration)… nor the impact it will have on our hospital capacity.
“I do have concern that we aren’t through this yet,” he said.
There are currently a number of respiratory viruses circulating in the Edmonton area, including influenza, COVID-19 and other respiratory pathogens like RSV, Sikora said. Lab specimens testing positive for coronavirus and RSV have spiked in the last two weeks. As of Nov. 5, there were 146 Albertans hospitalized with influenza.
RSV tends to impact younger patients, COVID-19 tends to have more severe impacts on older populations, he said, while influenza hits both young and old.
Neither Sikora nor Majaesic could offer estimates for when Alberta’s respiratory illness season might peak.
“If this year is anything like years before… we haven’t reached a peak yet,” Majaesic said.
“We’re not likely to be out of viral season in the next few months. It usually lasts until spring,” she added.
Sikora said AHS is following its federal colleagues with the Public Health Agency of Canada, recommending the use of face masks in indoor public settings to reduce transmission.
Other steps people can take to protect themselves, others and the health-care facilities include:
- being immunized against influenza
- getting a COVID-19 booster, if eligible
- frequent hand-washing and using hand sanitizer
- staying home when you’re sick
“Absenteeism is better than spreading illness around a school,” Sikora said.
Read more: Edmonton Public Schools asks province to bring back mask mandates during illness outbreaks
The pair said there are other resources for parents, including Health Link, online health tips, and reaching out to their primary care provider or pediatrician.
Majaesic said pediatricians have already extended clinic hours to help ease the pressure at children’s hospitals.
Staff at these hospitals are incredibly dedicated and are working really hard “under extraordinary circumstances,” she said.
However, staffing is a concern.
Health-care workers are exhausted from years of responding to the pandemic and are more exposed to illness through their work, Majaesic said, calling it a “double whammy.”
“A huge thanks to all our staff,” Sikora added. “These are very challenging circumstances.”
The Stollery hasn’t yet had to consider cutting back on other services or procedures, Majaesic said, but “we’re over capacity for what we’d normally admit for our service.”
When asked about the children’s pain medicine shortage, she said the Stollery has been able to make its own liquid Tylenol for patients at the hospital.
Majaesic is also asking local drug stores if they can access compound Tylenol or have someone make it in liquid form for them and their patients.
“The good part is it works just as well (as the pill), but the drawback is you can’t store it… It’s only good for four or five days.
“It’s inconvenient but it does work.”
As for treating respiratory illnesses at home, Majaesic recommends good nasal hygiene like saline washes, nasal steriods, decongestants, drinking lots of fluids, rest and staying warm. She said patients should be encouraged to cough and not let congestion settle.
If symptoms don’t improve in about three days, she suggests calling Health Link for advice.
If a child has prolonged illness, is short of breath or having trouble breathing, can’t keep fluids down or has a persistent fever, the parents should seek medical help, Majaesic said.
The Opposition says Albertans should be hearing from the premier, health minister and the new chief medical officer of health.
“I am disappointed that the UCP are refusing to answer to Albertans worried about their access to health care,” said David Shepherd, the NDP’s health critic.
“The suggested guidance from today’s availability to avoid emergency rooms by going to see a family doctor is not possible for hundreds of thousands of Albertans who do not have a family doctor because of the UCP’s attacks on doctors.”
In a news conference on Wednesday, Opposition leader Rachel Notley said no one is stepping up from the UCP government to address this surge in children’s respiratory illnesses and long waits at emergency rooms.
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“We haven’t heard from Danielle Smith on this issue. We haven’t heard from the minister of health on this issue. And we haven’t heard from the chief medical officer of health on this issue.”
She said, at the very least, Albertans should be hearing a plan on how to redeploy resources and improve access to children’s pain medication.
Read more: Joffe to replace Hinshaw as Alberta’s chief medical officer of health: provincial government
Notley also said the firing of Dr. Deena Hinshaw and appointment of Dr. Mark Joffe as the new interim chief medical officer of health sends a message.
“We have a chief medical officer of health who, although a very credible human being, is not actually even being paid to do the job, and he’s still doing his other complete job. So that sounds to me like we’ve got a government that doesn’t really value that role.
“We have a new acting chief medical officer of health (who) actually has a gargantuan range of responsibilities in his current job who’s been given no time and no extra money to do this whole other job,” Notley said.