The number of children transported between Ontario’s overburdened hospitals shot to new heights in November as a triple threat of respiratory viruses piled pressure on the province’s health-care system.
New data from Ornge, which facilitates a portion of patient transfers in Ontario, shows the number of children transported between hospitals for respiratory illnesses in November was the highest level since 2018 — a result of what the Minister of Health called hospitals working together to “balance the load.”
“There are times when a particular part of the province is going to have a higher incident rate,” Minister Sylvia Jones said on Thursday. “That ability to move patients when necessary to other facilities that do not see that surge that particular day is a really important way for us to balance the load in Ontario as we experience these surges.”
The persistent pressure being placed on emergency departments across Ontario, however, could force the province to begin transferring patients south of the border — and planning for that worst-case scenario is already underway.
The data, provided to Global News by Ornge, shows the upward trend began as early as July when roughly 50 pediatric patients with respiratory illness had to be shuttled between provincial hospitals.
By November, Ornge found itself transferring nearly 140 pediatric patients with respiratory illness to other hospitals in an attempt to find an open bed suitable for care.
The increased volume is 150 per cent higher than pre-pandemic levels.
“We’ve seen this with older adults, but not with the pediatrics,” said Dr. Michael Lewell, Ornge’s associate medical officer. “This is the first time we’ve seen such a significant volume with pediatrics.”
The spike in volumes faced by Ornge represents a partial view of overall patient transfers in Ontario. Patients can also be transferred by hospital pediatric teams and local ambulance services which, Dr. Lewell said, have been experiencing a 50 per cent increase during the current surge.
On Thursday, the province had just 11 pediatric ICU beds available across the province while, Dr. Lewell said, more than 100 pediatric patients above the age of 14 were being cared for in adult ICU wards.
While patients, in some instances, are being transferred within cities, other patients are travelling greater distances to find an open bed.
“For instance, we’ll see a patient that would normally flow to Hamilton or Toronto now being moved to Kingston,” Dr. Lewell said. “We’re moving some northern patients down south.”
Still the healthcare system is now preparing for the worst-case scenario, a total exhaustion of available pediatric beds.
Ornge is now looking to increase flight certificates to be able to fly into the United States, if required, as the province potentially leans on existing relationships with hospitals in border states to help manage the load.
“Hospitals that are on our borders, such as in the upper state of New York as well as in eastern Michigan, would be the natural sort of fit,” Dr. Lewell said, while cautioning that the province has yet to enter into any formal agreement for any transfers into the U.S.
The growing number of respiratory cases in children has threatened to crush pediatric hospitals. In the second week of November, Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital announced it was scaling back surgeries.
President Dr. Ronald Cohn said the hospital had “no choice” but to prioritize “urgent, emergency and time-sensitive surgeries” as of Nov. 14 in order to preserve critical care beds for an influx of patients.
The hospital’s chief medical officer, Dr. Lennox Huang, told Global News at the time that the province is dealing with a “pediatric crisis,” one that he hasn’t experienced in his 18-year medical career.
“It’s filling up every single ward of the hospital,” Dr. Huang said. “Our ICU is pretty much right at capacity. We’re seeing this in our emergency department and our general pediatric floors as well.”
The last week of November also saw the highest number of pediatric hospitalizations for a single week in the past decade, said Dr. Jesse Papenburg, who works at Montreal Children’s Hospital.
A typical flu season sees about 1,000 kids admitted to hospital. Due to pandemic public health measures, he said last season saw only 400 and there were none the season before that.
Up to the end of November, over 700 children had been hospitalized with the H3N2 strain of the flu, which typically takes a toll on older adults. But the season could continue until March or April, Papenburg said of the unexpected epidemic.
In December, the Red Cross was called in to help the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), which Premier Doug Ford applauded as the hospital “thinking outside of the box.”
Despite the overwhelming situation, the province’s Health Minister urged parents not to think twice about using Ontario’s emergency departments.
“As a caregiver, as a parent, if you believe that you need to take your child to emergency … absolutely do it,” Jones said on Thursday.
— with files from The Canadian Press