Nova Scotia

ER visits dropped by more than half after COVID-19 hit Nova Scotia

Daily visits to Nova Scotia emergency rooms decreased by more than half the first month after the initial case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the province.

Doctors seeing fewer injuries, cases of flu, but worry people might be afraid to get treatment

Emergency departments in Nova Scotia have seen a steep drop in people seeking treatment. (Robert Short/CBC)

The number of people seeking treatment at Nova Scotia emergency rooms was down by more than half less than a month after the initial case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the province.

The Nova Scotia Health Authority says there were 1,854 visits to emergency departments on March 9, six days before the first case of the virus was announced in the province. On April 5, there were just 752 visits.

Dr. Janet MacIntyre, the emergency department chief at the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax, said since the outbreak started she's seen fewer minor injuries in emergency rooms.

"I don't know if that's because patients are taking care of things themselves, are afraid to access care, or maybe because our lifestyles have changed — some of these conditions aren't as frequent," she said.

MacIntyre said fear of COVID-19 could play a role.

"There probably are people that are nervous about accessing care because they're concerned that if they go to an acute care centre or if they're accessing medical care within a hospital, that they could come in contact with patients who are infected with COVID," she said.

As of Tuesday, the province said 915 people had tested positive for COVID-19 and 27 people had died.

But MacIntyre said people shouldn't be worried about accessing care in hospitals because COVID-19 testing and treatment sites have been moved out of emergency rooms.

Assessment sites specific to COVID-19 were set up in March to separate patients and staff from people with the virus.

"We certainly have put in significant infection control measures to make sure that people are safe anywhere, everywhere in the hospital. So not just the emergency department but throughout the hospital," she said.

The Nova Scotia government issued this COVID-19 projection on April 14. (Nova Scotia government)

Dr. Robert Strang, the province's chief medical officer of health, said the Nova Scotia Health Authority has decreased the number of people in hospital "significantly."

The health authority has cancelled all elective outpatient visits, all non-urgent imaging appointments have been rescheduled, it has now enabled doctors to provide care over the phone and has issued a no-visitation policy.

In a press briefing, Strang said predictive modelling shows there will be enough beds to accommodate people with COVID-19 and without COVID-19 — but Nova Scotians must respect the public health protocols like physical distancing and self-isolation.

"When you combine the existing demands on the health-care system, even though we've off-loaded a lot of things, there's still a lot of other non-COVID-related health needs that have to be dealt with," he said.

"But if you put the two together, non-COVID and COVID, the poor compliance modelling scenario would overload our health-care system."

The IWK Health Centre emergency entrance. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

The IWK Health Centre in Halifax also saw a drop in visits after COVID-19 hit the province. Doctors there said the decrease could be related to school and daycare closures. Typical cases of colds and flus are gone.

"With the physical distancing, we are just not seeing those types of illnesses anymore," said Dr. Katrina Hurley, chief of the emergency department at the children's hospital. "That, basically, abruptly ended flu season."

But MacIntyre said people with acute illnesses and injuries are still encouraged to visit the emergency room.

"I don't think they should be afraid to come. The emergency department is there and ready to see them and take care of them."

MacIntyre said 811 can be a helpful tool to determine whether or not you should seek medical assistance for an illness or injury unrelated to COVID-19.

Anyone with two or more symptoms of COVID-19, including fever, a new or worsening cough, sore throat, runny nose or headache, should visit 811's website for a self-assessment questionnaire to determine if 811 should be called for further assessment.