Patients slowly returning to hospital emergency rooms in northeastern Ontario

Hospital emergency rooms across northeastern Ontario are thankful to be a little busier these days. The number of patients coming in dropped sharply when COVID-19 first hit the region a few months ago.

Hospitals in the region saw emergency room traffic drop in half at start of the pandemic

A man wears a protective face mask as he walks past the emergency department of the Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, B.C. Friday, April 3, 2020. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

All of a sudden, it seemed like a normal summer Friday night in the emergency room.

Dr. Rob Lepage was treating dozens of patients coming into the Sudbury hospital with injuries from driving a boat or an ATV, sometimes after drinking too much. And there were several drug overdoses as well.

But this is still in the middle of a pandemic, when people are supposed to be physical distancing. 

"Everybody has been couped up for months and there was a whole lot of partying going on," he says.

With about 180 patients on this Friday night, that was close to the normal daily patient total of about 200.

Dr. Rob Lepage has been an emergency room physician in Sudbury for 30 years. (Erik White/CBC )

Those numbers dropped in half when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early March and Lepage says the emergency department remained quiet for weeks. 

"People were afraid to come to the emergency department. Afraid they'd get COVID," he says.

"Patients that had come in late having a heart attack or a stroke or with serious infections and they were a lot sicker because of this."

Timmins and District Hospital hasn't heard many stories like that, but has seen traffic in the ER drop to about 35 per cent in early March and has similarly watched numbers climb up to around 60 per cent of pre-pandemic volumes.

"The hospital looks incredibly different. I mean it's truly amazing walking into the building and looking at areas that were once crowded. It's virtually empty," says Timmins hospital president Blaise MacNeil.

He doesn't doubt that some patients have stayed away for fear of catching COVID, but thinks "it's a little deeper than that."

MacNeil figures more people with chronic diseases like diabetes are managing their conditions themselves, while others are getting assessed by community paramedics or through telemedicine. 

The Temiskaming Hospital saw visits to emergency drop to 40 per cent in March and after an advertising blitz a few weeks ago on local radio and social media, it's now up to around 60 per cent.

But president Mike Baker says that doesn't mean it's a shorter wait to see a doctor. 

Mike Baker is the president and the CEO of the Temiskaming Hospital. (Erik White/CBC )

"Everything these days takes a lot longer. So it takes longer for us to deal with the lower numbers, because of the (personal protective equipment) we have to wear while we manage those," he says.

Baker doesn't expect that will change in the months ahead and neither does Dr. Lepage, who is now suiting up for most patients he sees in the emergency room. 

"I don't think we're going to go back to the way we did things," he says. "I think that will be the new normal."

Lepage says in order to keep patients apart in the waiting room, they've expanded into some office space in the Sudbury hospital and are contemplating seeing non-critical patients in their cars in the parking lot.

But in general, there is suddenly a lot of extra space in a hospital that's struggled with overcrowding for years.

Lepage quips that the pandemic has taken care of "hallway medicine" a lot faster than the politicians. 


Erik White


Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to


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