Winnipeg ER visits spike amid concerns over looming flu season

A lot of Winnipeggers apparently started off 2017 by falling ill and visiting emergency rooms, the city's regional health authority says.

Lounges, conference rooms, surgery patient beds used as overflow to address rise in hospitalizations

Emergency room visits have spiked in recent weeks, largely due to people coming in with respiratory illnesses, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority says. (CBC)

A lot of Winnipeggers apparently started off 2017 by falling ill and visiting emergency rooms.

Emergency room visits and hospital admissions are way up in the city since Jan. 1, according to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

Lori Lamont is the vice-president of interprofessional practice and chief nursing officer with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. (CBC)

"We really try and encourage people not to use the emergency department unless their illness is serious," said Lori Lamont, vice-president and chief nursing officer with the WRHA. 

"With the increase in activity and increased demand for admission, it does slow our system down."

Lamont estimates that over the past two weeks, there have been about 100 more daily visits to Winnipeg emergency rooms than average.

The majority of people checking into emergency rooms are suffering from viral respiratory illnesses. The WRHA is still waiting on test results to confirm whether the recent wave of illnesses is flu-related.

"If it isn't here in full force it is definitely on the way," a WRHA spokesperson said.

The influx triggered the WRHA's over-capacity plan, which involves opening up lounges, conference rooms and beds normally reserved for surgery patients to accommodate the extra patients.

"Our hospitals operate at quite high levels of occupancy at all times, so there isn't a lot of unused space," Lamont said, adding at least 70 extra spaces are now in use to help house hospitalized patients.

The current overflow accommodations are staffed and treated similar to three- or four-bed units, and not in use by high-care patients.

"You'd most likely find someone there who is stable, maybe a day or two away from discharge. No one with high acuity needs would be placed in an alternative space," a WRHA spokesperson said.

WRHA officials are also checking in with high-traffic hospitals twice a day right now to determine which facilities are under the most pressure and need to transfer patients to other hospitals with more space or resources available.

Some patients in stable condition have already been moved between hospitals using non-emergency vehicles, like stretcher services, a WRHA spokesperson said.

Assuming Winnipeg is at the beginning of a flu outbreak, Lamont said it's especially important now that people wash their hands, cover their mouths when they cough and get the flu vaccine if they haven't already.

"It's not too late to get the flu vaccine," she said. "If this is flu, we are in it for the next four to six weeks, so certainly [there's] lots of time to protect yourself."

Lamont also advises people who are sick to stay home from school or work, get some rest, "treat yourself with over-the-counter medication" and go see a family doctor or their health professionals at one of several QuickCare clinics.

With files from Brett Purdy