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Ambulances seen outside the Emergency Department at Edmonton's Walter C. Mackenzie Health Sciences Centre on May 12, 2022.Artur Widak/Reuters

Health care professionals in Western Canada say they are seeing a spike in babies and children coming to the emergency room with respiratory virus symptoms, adding more strain to facilities already stretched to capacity.

At the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton, doctors have had to treat some pediatric patients in the waiting room owing to a lack of available space, said pediatric emergency physician Amaly Rahman.

“We’re actually quite worried. I’ve never seen the waiting room have over 50 children waiting to be seen. This has all started over the last two to three weeks here.”

The Stollery recently opened a surge unit to accommodate an overwhelming number of patients, but that also quickly filled up, Dr. Rahman said. One bed is always left open in the emergency room in case a patient stops breathing or suffers another immediate medical emergency, she added; recently, a co-worker had two pediatric patients in that space at the same time.

Last year, pediatric hospitals across Canada were overwhelmed during a “tripledemic” of influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and COVID-19 that sent waves of young patients to the ER. While some health officials, particularly those east of Manitoba, say this year is more in line with a typical respiratory virus season, western provinces are being hit hard.

Paul Parks, president of the Alberta Medical Association, said high rates of viral transmission is affecting all age groups and leading to excessive wait times. He’s heard of wait times for kids stretching as long as 17 hours in recent days.

“There’s no question that influenza and RSV are hitting peds really, really hard,” said Dr. Parks, who is also an emergency physician based in Medicine Hat. “We’re seeing a lot of really sick toddlers and infants that are even needing to be admitted and intubated.”

In a statement, Alberta Health Services spokesperson Kerry Williamson noted that pediatric hospitals in the province are busy, including the emergency departments and ICUs. “We are adding capacity to our children’s hospitals,” he wrote, adding that children’s hospitals in Calgary and Edmonton have added staff and alternate care spaces.

Christy Hay, executive director of clinical service delivery at BC Children’s Hospital, said in a statement that the facility has not seen a “significant and sustained” increase in serious respiratory cases in recent weeks.

Karen Gripp, medical director of the Health Sciences Centre Children’s Emergency Department in Winnipeg, said her unit has been experiencing up to 170 visits a day, on par with last year, and that cases haven’t hit the peak yet.

“Definitely, the numbers are climbing.”

In the past week, the hospital has admitted 17 children seriously ill as a result of RSV. It’s a common virus that can lead to breathing difficulties, particularly in babies, but Dr. Gripp said the hospital has had to admit patients as old as eight this season, which is unusual. It’s unclear whether this is because some of those children had less exposure to RSV during the pandemic, or if a newer, more virulent strain is spreading.

Dr. Gripp said that she has been talking with colleagues across the country, and that while many based in western provinces are reporting high levels of influenza, those in the east are dealing predominantly with RSV-related illness. Manitoba is dealing with both, which she said suggests that the flu is creeping its way eastward while RSV moves west.

Racheal Martens, a registered nurse who specializes in pediatrics in Saskatoon, said she and her colleagues have noticed a major upswing in children dealing with serious respiratory virus symptoms.

“We’ve got a much greater number of cases of influenza in kids. More of those cases are ending up in hospital and they’re requiring more invasive treatment and higher levels of care,” said Ms. Martens, who is the director of communications with the Canadian Association of Paediatric Nurses.

It’s unclear exactly how many kids are ending up in hospital as a result of the flu. The Public Health Agency of Canada typically collects information on pediatric hospitalizations and severe outcomes from a network of hospitals across the country, but this data has not been published in several weeks. PHAC was unable to provide an explanation on Tuesday as to why the data is missing.

In Ontario and Eastern Canada, several children’s hospitals say that, so far, this respiratory virus season looks like it did before the pandemic.

Laurie Plotnick, medical director of the Montreal Children’s Hospital Emergency Department, said more sick children are coming in, but the trends are what would be expected at this time of year. She suggested that a teacher’s strike in Quebec could be helping keep transmission of viruses low, and that there may be an uptick during and after the holidays.

It’s important for families, particularly those with babies under six months, to get vaccinated and take other preventive measures, including handwashing and avoiding large gatherings, Dr. Plotnick said.

Sluggish uptake of the flu shot has been an issue for most age groups in Canada. According to data from Alberta Health Services, only 13 per cent of children under 12 have been vaccinated against influenza in 2023.

Earlier this year, Health Canada approved a new monoclonal antibody treatment designed to protect babies from severe breathing problems caused by RSV, but it is not yet widely available.

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