CHEO has record-busy May, says June will likely follow suit

The children's hospital in Ottawa pointed to the spread of several viruses and the seasonal rise in children getting hurt as summer arrives.

Long wait times, high patient loads are a trend at other Ontario children's hospitals

CHEO says it had one of its busiest spring weekends in its 48 years of of operation. It also comes off the heels of its busiest May on record, with a daily average of 228 visits to its emergency department. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

CHEO, eastern Ontario's children hospital in Ottawa, has recorded its busiest May on record and says it's on track for a similar June, with resources stretched thin.

"What we're doing is diverting staff … to work in the highest-pressure areas," said Tammy DeGiovanni, CHEO's senior vice president of clinical services and the chief nurse executive.

"Over the weekend, we had people from all areas of the hospital working on in-patient units to lend a hand — so coming in on their days off." 

CHEO pointed to the spread of several viruses and the seasonal rise in children getting hurt as summer arrives. 

"We have many viruses circulating in the community," DeGiovanni said. "Normally we would see that in January, February, but certainly not in the spring."

Sixteen patients admitted on Saturday couldn't be assigned a bed and were left in the emergency department. That led to cancelled procedures.

While some numbers had normalized by Monday, the hospital suggested parents may want to explore other options such as a family doctor, care clinic or walk-in clinic  to avoid the frustrations of long wait times. 

"We recognize that there's probably no more stressful time for a patient's family than when they need to bring their child to the hospital," DeGiovanni said.

"And so we're trying to be honest about what the experience will be so that they can prepare themselves."

Problems go beyond CHEO

CHEO saw a daily average of 228 visits to its emergency department in May. In June, those numbers are closer to 235 daily visits.

DeGiovanni said in-patient medical units are running at more than 120 per cent capacity most days and other pediatric hospitals are facing similar trends. Patients have also had to be sent to other regions of Ontario for care, she said. 

Toronto's SickKids and the McMaster Children's Hospital in Hamilton, Ont., reported similarly busier-than-average Mays.

While number of young people admitted to CHEO's emergency department and those waiting for a bed had somewhat normalized by Monday, a spokesperson warned it can change quickly depending "on the injuries, accidents and illnesses coming through the door." 

According to some, the problems extend beyond the children's hospital. 

Jenna Jessop was unable to book a same-day appointment with a family doctor after her son started to feel unwell last week, including some COVID-19-like symptoms.

After attending an urgent care unit in Orléans, a telemedicine appointment and even CHEO's COVID-19 assessment centre, she felt frustrated. 

"It just seems like people are not able to see their family doctor," she said. "There's no availability." 

'An incredibly stressful time'

Alison Eyre, who works at the Centretown Community Health Centre as a family physician, believes the pandemic has changed how people approach the health-care system, including anxious new parents taking their children to hospital at the first sign of sickness. 

She said family doctors are also feeling the pinch, left to catch many of the balls thrown in the air as more of the world, including hospitals, opens up. 

Offices like hers have been "amazingly busy," she said. 

"I think … a lot of primary care providers have just found this to be an incredibly stressful time," Eyre said. "We are completely overwhelmed because not only is there a backlog relating to pediatrics, but relating to everything."

Alison Eyre, who works at the Centretown Community Health Centre as a family physician, and says offices like hers have been 'amazingly busy.' (CBC)

While her clinic prides itself on having same-day appointments, her patients are constantly telling her how difficult it is to land one, she said. 

Eyre said June involved "a whole bunch of waves crashing together" in a way that didn't happen in April, including the wider lifting of mask mandates

The mental health of young people also took a beating over the last few years, another factor potentially driving delays at hospitals. 

"In Ottawa in particular, we need to really look at what's happening in primary care, pediatric as well as from the family doctor perspective," she said, "because I think we've lost a lot of our availability."


Joe Tunney reports for CBC News in Ottawa. He can be reached at

With files from Waqas Chughtai and Carmen Klassen