McMaster Children's Hospital preparing for 'unprecedented' move to admit adult ICU patients

The hospital has readied two beds in its Women's Health ICU and other ward beds have been also been prepared, according to Dr. Christopher Sulowski, interim medical director of the pediatric emergency department.

Dr. Christopher Sulowski urges families to continue seeking care for kids

McMaster Children's Hospital is readying ICU beds in case they're needed for adult patients. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

McMaster Children's Hospital is preparing to do something "unprecedented" — bring adults into its intensive care unit.

The hospital has readied two beds in its Women's Health ICU and other ward beds have been also been prepared, according to Dr. Christopher Sulowski, interim medical director of the pediatric emergency department.

If needed, they'll be used to care for people over the age of 18 who are critically ill, but do not have COVID-19.

"I think as the numbers continue to rise it's one of the measures we just have to take," said the doctor, adding the hospital has measures in place to minimize the spread of the virus.

"It's certainly not something we're rushing to do, but it's something that if push comes to shove, we're prepared to do."

All five of the province's children's hospitals are making similar preparations, tweeted Ontario Hospital Association CEO Anthony Dale on April 26.

"Their dedicated clinicians are now part of the #TeamOntario fight to keep adults alive in this 3rd pandemic wave," he said.

Sulowski has worked at the children's hospital for about a decade. This is a first, he said.

"It's certainly unprecedented. I think that's a fair word to use with the situation we're facing right now."

Capacity at Hamilton's hospitals has been stretched as variants of the virus spread and hospitalizations spike.

Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS), which runs the children's hospital, has boosted its number of ICU beds by 43 per cent, from 88 to 126, according to a media release shared Tuesday.

The beds each come with a range of equipment, which has forced staff to double up on beds in some rooms and place others in areas normally used for procedural care.

ICU is 'controlled chaos'

Dr. Bram Rochwerg, site lead at the Juravinski Hospital ICU, described each day as "controlled chaos," adding "the ICU is operating over capacity all the time."

Cindi Neptune, an ICU nurse at Hamilton General Hospital, was even more blunt in speaking about the impact on staff.

"We have been doing this for a year, we are more than exhausted. We are no longer the frontline or the last line. The public needs to save themselves," reads her statement included in the HHS media release.

"We are seeing multiple family members, within a family die from Covid-19 because they feel their holiday and family gatherings are more important than their lives." 

HHS reported being at 86 per cent of its overall adult funded ICU capacity Wednesday, noting it's been directed by the government to leave 15 per cent occupancy available for pandemic response. St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton's website shows it's at 87 per cent.

In order to keep up, HHS said it has redeployed nearly 200 staff, including some from the children's hospital, and more are needed.

Dr. Christopher Sulowski is the interim medical director of the pediatric emergency department at McMaster Children’s Hospital. (McMaster University)

But while COVID-19 continues to strain health care workers and the system, Sulowski said the hospital is seeing a "very significant" drop in visits to the pediatric emergency room.

"We're still only seeing about 50 per cent of the patient volumes that we would expect."

The hospital believes the pandemic and concern about contracting the virus may be to blame.

Cases in kids mostly mild, says doctor

Those fears are especially acute following the death of Emily Victoria Viegas, 13, who died on April 22, according to an online fundraiser launched in her memory.

A family friend, who organized the fundraiser, told CBC News that Viegas had contracted COVID-19 as well as pneumonia.

"Kids are getting this. However, I think it's important to also stress that the vast majority of kids are not presenting with the same, severe disease [as Viegas]," said Sulowski, who described her death as "a really tragic case."

WATCH | Reaction to the death of Emily Victoria Viegas: 

Brampton teen Emily Victoria Viegas, 13, dies with COVID-19

5 months ago
A Brampton teen is among the youngest Canadians to die with COVID-19. Emily Victoria Viegas, 13, died on April 22, according to an online fundraiser launched in her memory. Greg Ross has more on the teen’s life — and reaction to her death. 2:22

The doctor said the majority of kids who test positive for the virus in Hamilton are being sent home to isolate and recover.

"For most kids who are getting COVID-19, they are still getting the mild version," he said.

That said, the hospital has seen "more and more" children swab positive, according to the doctor.

Hamilton's COVID-19 data shows 878 children up to age nine have contracted the virus, including 125 cases that were active as of Wednesday. For 10-19 year olds, the total to date is 1,833, with 214 that are active.

'Please don't hesitate to see us'

Sulowski urged parents who notice their children are dehydrated, having difficulty breathing or are suffering pain to bring them to the hospital's emergency room.

Staff there have also noticed a rise in visits related to mental health and other stress linked to the pandemic, he said.

The doctor outlined steps HHS has taken to protect patients, including screening, a triage process that places people with COVID-19, or at high risk, in a separate room and masks, eye protection, gloves and gowns for staff.

"We've even had extra stethoscopes purchased for the ER so that between patients those stethoscopes can be cleaned and those stethoscopes stay with that patient or in that room," he said.

"If you're worried about your child please don't hesitate to see us. We've made lots of changes to keep you as safe as possible while you're here."


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