‘The numbers are staggering’: Patient surge at Alberta Children’s Hospital results in halt of respite services

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‘The numbers are staggering’: Patient surge at Alberta Children’s Hospital results in halt of respite services
The Rotary Flames House is temporarily pausing its services and discharging all respite patients to redeploy staff to Alberta Children's Hospital. Carolyn Kury de Castillo reports – Dec 5, 2022

Respite care at the Rotary Flames House in Calgary is being put on hold to help address the surge in patients at the Alberta Children’s Hospital.

Alberta Health Services said it will be working with families now using respite care, which allows family members a short break from caring for their sick children. All patients are expected to be discharged by Tuesday.

Other services provided at Rotary Flames House, like palliative care and grief support, will be temporarily relocated to the children’s hospital.

“We have to prioritize those children that are acutely ill and make sure that we are here for them,” said Margaret Fullerton, the senior operating officer at the Alberta Children’s Hospital.

“We have many plans in place and we continue to change the plans as needed, but we know that the respiratory surge has hit us — and I know everybody has seen that in their children and in the schools — and it’s certainly impacting us,” said Fullerton. “So this is the next part of our plan that we are doing to really make sure to prioritize the acutely ill children and make sure that they are getting the care they need.”

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“It’s quite sad that it’s come to this,” said Dr. Sam Wong, president of the pediatric section of the Alberta Medical Association.

“I know they are trying to keep the surgeries open as long as possible. I think they’re trying to minimize the impact on the rest of the patients as much as they can, but it’s now starting to have an impact on patient care in other areas, other than just in-patient and emergency,”

Wong said he’s never seen anything like this in his 25 years of working as a pediatrician or a pediatric resident.

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“The numbers are staggering. It’s truly unprecedented, the number of illnesses that we are seeing. The kids who are coming in quite often have double viruses and that makes them sicker.  There’s a lot of stuff going on that is truly stressing the system to its maximum,” Wong said.

The CEO of Children First Canada is calling for strong messaging from all levels of government to deal with a crisis she says could have been avoided.

“Children’s lives are on the line and it’s really an urgent situation that requires leadership from all levels of government to solve,” said Sara Austin on Saturday.

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“Urging parents to vaccinate their children, to be wearing masks indoors and to take preventative measures that are needed, but also to be making the tough decisions on a public policy level to protect the health of our children,”

“This is a crisis that was preventable,” Austin said. “Children are getting sick from preventable illnesses, and we know the solutions that are needed to keep them healthy and well. There is significant neglect on the part of our government leaders right now, when it comes to measures that are needed to protect our children,” Austin said.

Wong said he’s disappointed in the low uptake in influenza and COVID vaccinations in Alberta. He said the getting the flu shot is one way to reduce the load on emergency departments.

“I would strongly urge parents to get their kids vaccinated for both COVID and influenza. Right now, this is not the time to hold off. This is the time to get vaccinated and try to have a safe and decent Christmas holiday.

Wong said he, too, would like to see a stronger message about vaccinations coming from government leaders.

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“Right now the politicians don’t seem to be really carrying that message forward, that influenza vaccination and COVID vaccinations can help reduce the load on our healthcare system.,, I think as a leader in our province, one should lead by example, and I don’t really see that currently and it’s disappointing from our point of view as pediatricians,” Wong said.

During a meeting with Edmonton health-care workers Saturday, federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh said shutting down respite services highlights the severity of the situation.

“This is a problem… For those services to have to be shut down because there’s such a shortage of health-care workers really highlights how bad things are and how much we need to do something about it. We need federal leadership,” said Singh. “We need Justin Trudeau to stop saying it’s just a provincial matter and step up and provide some leadership.

“We’ve been pushing to protect our health-care system because it should be there for everyone. It shouldn’t matter how much money you make. It shouldn’t be that you have to have lots of money to get the best care.”

The President of the United Nurse of Alberta, Heather Smith, says these are all symptoms of bigger problems in the health-care system.

“It’s desperation. They’re not ideal decisions. But in terms of prioritizing, in terms of trying to keep children safe and from harm, these are the kinds of decisions that come up and have to be made. The longer we are from attempts to find real resolution, the more this kind of stuff goes on. But I’m convinced and I’m sure these are not decisions that Alberta Health Services is taking lightly.”

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Smith says there are concrete steps the province could be taking to ease the burden on the system, including encouraging mask wearing in schools.

A statement from AHS to Global News on Friday stated that the staffing redeployment is temporary.

“We understand this temporary pause in respite services may be concerning and difficult for our clients and families. We will do our best to resume this important service as soon as possible. These are extraordinary times, and we thank Albertans in advance for their support and understanding.”

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