COVID-19 measures lead to drop in other infectious diseases, emergency visits in Yukon

The president of the Yukon Medical Association says the drop in emergency department visits isn't necessarily a good thing.

Yukon Medical Association says people who need urgent care should still go to emergency department

1,532 people visited the emergency department at Whitehorse General Hospital in Apr. 2020 compared to 2,751 in Apr. 2019. (Steve Silva/CBC)

There's been a significant drop in visits to emergency departments since COVID-19 measures went into place, and the president of the Yukon Medical Association (YMA) says there are many possible explanations for that — and not all of them are good.

"Across the county there's been a dramatic decline in emergency department visits," said Dr. Katharine Smart, adding that there's concern that some people who need urgent help aren't seeking it.

"If you have an urgent medical problem you should get to the emergency department."

Visits to the emergency department last month were down by more than 40 per cent at hospitals in Whitehorse, Dawson City and Watson Lake compared to the two previous years, according to data from the Yukon Hospital Corporation. 

Less spread of infectious disease 

Smart said physical distancing measures put in place to control COVID-19 helped contain other infectious diseases that are spread by people being in close contact. That's one possible explanation for the decline in ER visits.

"These measures have completely eliminated influenza, which was still circulating here when COVID[-19] started."

Monthly visitation at emergency departments
 April 2018April 2019April 2020
Whitehorse General Hospital2,6942,7511,532
Dawson City Community Hospital193192109
Watson Lake Community Hospital188212131


Smart said they've also seen very few cases of respiratory syncytial virus, which in Yukon usually peaks in April and May and is the number one reason children under one year of age are hospitalized in Canada. 

"We've hardly seen any of that either but it's the same phenomenon — when people are distancing, less kids are in daycare, people aren't around each other — those types of things just disappear." 

She said there may also be less trauma and accidents requiring emergency care, because people were doing fewer activities when the restrictions first went into effect. 

Hospitals open and safe

But Smart said there's also concern about people who may not be seeking medical care either because they are worried about over-burdening the health-care system, or because they're afraid of contracting COVID-19 at the hospital.

"The hospital is a safe place and if you're having and emergency it's absolutely fine to go there," she said. 

Dr. Katharine Smart says Yukoners should not hesitate to seek emergency care. (Steve Silva/CBC)

Smart said there are staff at the entrance of the hospitals who are screening people who might be at risk of COVID-19 so those patients aren't mixing with others. 

She said people who aren't sure if they should seek medical care can call Yukon's HealthLine at 8-1-1 to speak to a nurse.

The Yukon government and YMA have also set up health-care options that don't require face to face interactions. Family doctors and specialists are offering "virtual care" services online or by phone. 

"You just phone the office like you normally would, book an appointment, and then you would be offered which platform you prefer," said Smart.

The Yukon Hospital Corporation said hospitals in the territory are starting to increase elective surgeries and non-urgent services such as bloodwork and X-rays. Those and other services were previously suspended as part of COVID-19 measures. 

There are no active cases of COVID-19 in the territory as of May 12.