Paige Lloyd doesn’t normally get the influenza vaccine, but after spending two weeks in the Alberta Children’s Hospital with her four-year-old daughter, she has a new perspective.
Andy started feeling sick at the beginning of November. She seemed to recover, but caught something else and was extremely tired for a week. Then, on Nov. 19, she started having trouble breathing.
“I could tell she was breathing really hard… shallow and quick,” Lloyd said. “We took her in (to Cochrane urgent care) and immediately she was brought right in and put on oxygen.”
After a call to ACH, a transport team came, assessed Andy, put her on high-flow oxygen and rushed her to the hospital in Calgary, where she was admitted to the intensive care unit.
“Within about an hour, she was intubated there,” Lloyd recalled.
“They basically had to sedate her to a point where she wouldn’t fight the tube going in. I stepped out… I was bawling. We go back into the room and she looks almost lifeless… It was terrifying.”
Andy tested positive for both Influenza A and a secondary infection of pneumonia. She was intubated for six days before the tube was removed. However, she was struggling with so much congestion, she had to be intubated a second time.
“At that point, I broke,” Lloyd said. “It was so sad, as a mom, to be so helpless that you can’t do anything.
“Emotionally, mentally, I was so done.”
The ICU was so busy, Lloyd said it was like a revolving door of sick children. Despite the volume, stress and strain, she said the staff were incredible.
“As soon as one child was getting discharged up to one of the wards, they were right in there, cleaning it, sanitizing it, getting another bed ready and another child was being admitted.
“The doctors, the nurses, they’re handling it so well. It takes such a special type of person to take care of these sick kids and even with the staffing issues they have, they never stop smiling. It was so amazing to see.”
Andy was discharged on Dec. 1 and on Tuesday, Lloyd said her daughter is almost back to her normal self but “very skinny from being on a feeding tube for two weeks.”
The whole experience has Lloyd asking herself some questions.
“I’ve never had the flu shot before,” she said. “I was always a big believer that: it’s the flu shot, it doesn’t cover all the flus out there. But in actuality, it covers the really bad ones.
“I’ve been second-guessing myself since this whole thing started… If we had the flu shot, would she have gotten so bad? Would she have been able to fight it a little better?
“I know a lot of people hearing these stories are just like myself and they’ve all gone out to get the flu shot,” Lloyd said.
“If you don’t have to go through what we endured for two weeks, watching your child need these life-saving machines, I urge you to go get the flu shot.”
Read next: Canada’s ‘Mighty Mouse’ treasures rare medal
Like many children’s hospitals across Canada, Alberta’s two children’s hospitals are seeing a surge in pediatric patients as they deal with a rise in respiratory illnesses.Health officials have said the Calgary hospital and the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton have been operating at or above 100 per cent of their normal capacity for the past month.
A surge in patients at ACH prompted Alberta Health Services to redeploy staff there from Rotary Flames House, a facility that provides respite care for chronically and terminally ill children.
So far, similar redeployment measures haven’t been implemented at the Stollery, an AHS spokesperson said Tuesday. However, a unit that was temporarily used for adults has been reverted back to pediatric care, opening up to 13 additional beds in the “coming weeks.” Some Stollery physicians are working extra shifts, AHS said. The pediatric ICU is at about 100 per cent capacity but has the ability to add additional beds if required.
In an update Monday, ACH’s senior operating officer said the hospital has added six additional beds and 65 redeployed staff — and that’s on top of other expanded capacity efforts. Six more beds are being added on Wednesday.
“The 65 people are coming from the Rotary Flames House, as well as some outpatient clinics,” Margaret Fullerton said. “We also have staff from other areas of AHS that are coming from more corporate types of positions that worked at the children’s hospital in the past and they’re coming forward.”
Prevention — and reducing the pressure on hospitals — is key, Fullerton said.
“We have very low vaccination rates for influenza, especially for children right now in Alberta, and the more flu vaccines we can get into children and families, I think would really help.”
Fullerton said the hospital can take more steps to meet more patient demand, if needed, but she really hopes it doesn’t come to that.
“We want to make sure we are ready in case the respiratory surge continues. We do look to eastern Canada and we know they’re continuing to face that surge. We are hopeful that the influenza rates, the RSV rates, will drop but we have to be prepared in case that doesn’t happen.”
ACH is expecting to have to cancel seven surgeries this week, but is still scheduled to complete 160.
Fullerton said of the hospital’s 82 clinics, five have been impacted and some patients are being postponed.
“It’s about a 30- to 50-per cent reduction in those services in those five clinics,” she said. “Those five clinics are related to gastrointestinal, nephrology, orthopedics, our surgery clinic and our pulmonary function lab.”
When asked about the province’s plans to reduce pressure on children’s hospitals, both the premier and health minister talked about improving health capacity and efficiency — but did not encourage vaccination.
“We’ve been hit with RSV, COVID and influenza all at once,” Danielle Smith said Tuesday morning. “Sadly, there isn’t a vaccine for RSV and it’s the most common childhood illness.
“What people need to know is that when their child gets sick, that they have the medication available to them so that they can treat the symptoms at home.”
The Alberta government announced Tuesday that Alberta Health Services has secured a shipment of five million bottles of children’s acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Smith said the province is working with AHS and Health Canada surrounding the logistics when it comes to importing the medicine. It’s something Health Minister Jason Copping said should take about two to three weeks.
Fullerton said the surge in cases that ACH is seeing is “primarily flu and RSV, and some COVID.”
Alberta’s latest influenza statistics (end of Nov. 26 week) show 5,163 lab-confirmed cases of influenza, nearly all of which are Influenza A. The data shows 818 hospitalizations due to flu, including 80 ICU admissions. Twenty-four of those ICU patients are under 18 years old.
Sixteen deaths have been attributed to the flu so far this season, including two children.
The Alberta Health data shows just 22.5 per cent of Albertans have received a flu shot.
Copping said Tuesday there are some hopeful signs.
“Looking at the data right now — flu wastewater data — it appears we have peaked. So that’s coming down.
“And when we actually look at the absenteeism numbers in schools — both in Calgary and Edmonton — three weeks ago, in Edmonton, it was about 15 per cent, in Calgary two weeks ago. It has now dropped to five and seven per cent, respectively,” Copping said.
“It looks like the number of transmissions in the community is coming down. It takes a little time for that to show up in the hospitals, but we expect the pressure on the hospitals will come down.”
Dr. Katharine Smart, pediatrician and past president of the Canadian Medical Association, says it’s too early to say we’ve peaked.
“We’ve seen a very vertical rise of influenza. There’s some indications RSV may be levelling off. But I think we have to remember we’re at very high rates. It’s not something that’s going to go straight up and then go straight down. We usually see these viruses over several months once they’re in the community.
“I certainly don’t think that there’s significant relief in the near term,” she said.
“We really need to be thinking about what we can do to mitigate the impacts of these viruses right now and ensure children are able to access the medical care they need.”
The cornerstone of that mitigation?
“Being vaccinated is critical. We have an excellent flu vaccine this year; it’s well-matched to the circulating strains of influenza. So for people who aren’t vaccinated, getting vaccinated is really important. Parents need to know that children as young as six months old can be vaccinated for the flu.
“COVID vaccines are also available for children and boosters for adults. And then masking in indoor spaces can really help blunt the spread of these respiratory viruses and allow our hospitals to catch up.”
Smart said the flu vaccine uptake is low — sitting between 20 and 25 per cent of the population, depending on where you look in Canada.
“When you’re vaccinated for the flu, your chance of getting severe illness is much lower — that means things like pneumonia, secondary bacterial infections, needing hospital admissions. And just if you do end up contracting the flu, your whole course of illness is going to be much milder.”
An earlier-than-usual influenza season and vaccine fatigue are making things more challenging, Smart added.
“And I think, unfortunately, a lot of misinformation that spread around the COVID vaccine has led to some vaccine hesitancy or uncertainty in the population. But these vaccines are safe and effective. And children under five are very vulnerable to complications from the flu and getting severe disease.
“So choosing vaccination is much better than choosing getting those complications from what is a vaccine-preventable illness.”
She said the spike in pediatric respiratory illness is further straining an already-struggling health system.
“I think the crisis is really significant. I think it would be helpful right now for people to see their leaders acknowledging it.”
The president of the Alberta Medical Association’s pediatrics section agrees that preventative measures can help reduce the pressure on hospitals.
“The first thing: if you’re sick, you’ve got symptoms, don’t go out,” Dr. Sam Wong said. “If you’ve got a cold, a cough, don’t go out. If you have to go out, wear a mask so you’re not transmitting your virus. Masks work. If you’re wearing a mask, you’re reducing the risk of somebody else catching a virus.”
He also hopes more Albertans will be immunized against the flu.
“The idea of getting vaccinated seems to make so much sense to me in helping to reduce the workload that the hospitals will undergo,” Wong said.
“It’s disillusioning sometimes when I look at the numbers to see how few people have gotten their kids vaccinated or have themselves have gotten vaccinated. It’s just sad.”