Ottawa

As flu season approaches, CHEO braces for 'unprecedented' demand

Patient volumes at eastern Ontario's children's hospital were among the highest ever last month, and that has officials there bracing for a potentially difficult flu season.

Ontario's busiest children's hospital looking at ways of handling overcrowding

With flu season on the way, CHEO is preparing for heavy patient loads — and isn't ruling out the possibility that some young patients may have to be sent to other hospitals for treatment. (Robert Short/CBC)

Patient volumes at eastern Ontario's children's hospital were among the highest ever last month, and that has officials there bracing for a potentially difficult flu season.

The flu season usually begins in November, adding pressure to emergency services.

But last month was the highest September patient load ever at CHEO, with an average of 210 patients per day last month — up from 188 average visits per day in 2015.

"The [number] of visits to our emergency department has been steadily increasing," wrote Ann Lynch, the hospital's chief nurse executive and vice-president of acute care, in a statement to CBC.

"And in the past two winters, we have seen unprecedented levels of demand throughout the hospital, running over capacity for months on end."

The hospital's emergency department experienced its busiest month on record last February, when the influenza season was in full swing. 

Overcrowding forced the hospital to refuse more than a dozen patients, transferring most of them to other hospitals in Kingston, Toronto, Hamilton or Montreal.

Two newborns were sent to Kingston, while another two went to neonatal intensive care units in Montreal.

'A last resort'

Lynch didn't rule out having to do that again this season.

"Unlike adult hospitals, when we are at capacity, some kids have to be sent out of the region," she wrote. "This is a last resort and something we do everything to avoid."

During the busiest part of the last flu season, CHEO's emergency department cared for an average of 249 patients per day, peaking one day at 303 young patients.

In light of the September numbers, the hospital is taking a closer look at how to accommodate what's expected to be a challenging winter.

"Running over capacity also has the ripple effect of leading to cancelled surgeries, because recovery beds are being used for urgent needs," wrote Lynch. 

"These are real challenges, but we have teams developing an all-hands-on-deck plan to meet these challenges. We always find a way."

CHEO had its highest September patient load ever last month. The children's hospital is taking a closer look at how to accommodate what's expected to be a challenging winter. (CBC)

Roughly half get flu vaccine

Meanwhile, Ottawa Public Health (OPH) is working to alleviate the strain of the flu season through vaccination.

Marie-Claude Turcotte, program manager for immunization, said an estimated 50 per cent of the region's population take the vaccine.

"Our main goal is to prevent the spread of the flu through the community," said Turcotte. "And of course, that helps the hospital, with fewer people being sick and presenting to the emergency."

OPH is beginning to receive the vaccine and has started to distribute it. High risk patients will be able to get the flu shot within the next few weeks from their health care providers, while OPH clinics will open at the beginning of November.

The Ottawa Hospital did not see similarly high volumes in September, according to spokesperson Michaela Schreiter. However, across the river, both the Gatineau Hospital and the Hull Hospital have been severely over capacity for several weeks.

The Hull hospital reached 160 per cent capacity Friday morning, while the previous Friday it was at 212 per cent capacity.

CHEO spokespeople say the situation in Quebec doesn't help alleviate emergency rooms in Ontario. 

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