The number of children visiting emergency departments in Ontario due to respiratory illnesses has seen a sharp and steady drop, according to hospital admission data, suggesting the province may be moving past the peak of a ‘triple threat‘ of viruses.
New data suggests the average number of young children who were taken to an emergency room on Jan. 2 dropped by 52 per cent compared to the height of the 2022-23 respiratory virus season in November when provincial hospitals were overwhelmed by the volume of patients suffering from either influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) or COVID-19.
The data, compiled by Acute Care Enhanced Surveilled (ACES), also shows the average number of children aged 0-17 who needed to be admitted to hospital also declined during the month of December, potentially relieving pressure on hospitals as they enter a new year.
Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious diseases specialist with Trillium Health, told Global News the trend is “characteristic” of respiratory viruses, which can see a sharp increase followed by a similar rapid decrease in hospital visits and admissions.
“It does seem that the worst of it is over,” Chakrabarti said. “We saw this explosive growth more in the month of November that’s starting to come down.”
The trend, according to other infectious diseases specialists, is being repeated in other parts of the country which were experiencing similar surges of RSV and flu-related hospital visits.
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“There is some pretty good indication in Canada that influenza has peaked and is on the decline, same with RSV,” said infectious diseases specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch.
The surge of patients during the fall placed unprecedented burden on pediatric units in Ontario, forcing hospitals to take extraordinary measures to cope.
The Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario cobbled together a secondary pediatric intensive care unit to manage the additional load of patients — which led to permanent provincial funding for the additional beds.
Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children was forced to defer some surgical procedures to reserve ICU beds for incoming patients and was forced to transfer between two to eight patients per day to other hospitals.
Ornge, a patient-transfer service, saw a swell of patients being transferred by land and air to hospitals with available space sometimes hundreds of kilometers away from a young patient’s home.
While the downward trend in respiratory illnesses may have resulted in a marginally reduced load on hospitals, experts warn not enough is being done to alleviate the concerns about capacity.
“We’re still in the thick of winter so we are still seeing respiratory patients come in,” Chakrabarti said. “Once these waves crest and then crash, you’re still sick people but they’re just not coming in to the same degree.”
Dr. Bogoch warns the province could also see a resurgence of COVID-19, similar to the post-holiday transmission trends the province has experienced during the past two winters.
“It wouldn’t be surprising if we actually see those rates go up, and in fact we saw some of that happening already in (the) northeastern United States, partially driven by the holiday season,” Bogoch said.
While the latest data — both provincial and federal — has yet to be updated to break down the infection rates during the final two weeks of 2022, Bogoch said it’s too early to say whether hospitals can resume normal activity.
“We still have to be careful because there’s still uncertainly as to what lies on the road ahead,” Dr. Bogoch cautioned. “They still have to be prepared to manage an influx of cases.”