Ontarians are being advised to keep up with vaccinations and wear masks indoors as doctors warn of a worsening respiratory illness season that’s hitting children — and the pediatric health system — particularly hard.
Physicians at a news conference hosted by the Ontario Medical Association said Wednesday that influenza arrived early in the province and more than half of Canadian cases of the illness so far have been in children and teenagers.
The early arrival of the flu, a resurgence in respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, and the continued spread of COVID-19 has made for a “triple threat” respiratory season that’s sending many children to the hospital and the situation is expected to get worse in the coming months, doctors said.
“It’s a little bit of a perfect storm,” said Dr. Rod Lim, emergency medical director of the ER at the Children’s Hospital in London, Ont.
The pediatric health-care system is under significant strain due to staffing challenges, medication supply chain issues and early circulation of viruses that typically peak in January, February and March, Lim said.
Bracing for ‘incredibly challenging winter’
“Most of us in the pediatric sector are bracing ourselves for an incredibly challenging winter,” he said.
Lim’s hospital is currently seeing “record volumes,” including young infants arriving with difficulty breathing, and he said he expects the high hospitalization numbers from viral illnesses “will get worse before it gets better.”
Dr. Rose Zacharias, president of the Ontario Medical Association, said her organization is urging the public to get vaccinated against influenza and keep up-to-date with COVID-19 shots.
Masks are not currently required in most spaces in Ontario.
Zacharias said the association is following public health advice around masks, but recommended people wear masks in crowded indoor spaces and around those who are more at risk. She also said “we need to be prepared to pivot” with viral illness trends.
“Our entire conversation today is around the increasing risk of respiratory illnesses and we know that masks can protect there,” she said. “We will be continuing to lean into our public health expertise and public health experts and the advice they give us.”
‘Wear a mask when you can’: Ford
Some medical experts have begun to call for renewed mask mandates in light of viral illness trends and pressures on hospitals, and Toronto’s board of health this week asked its top doctor to explore mandatory masking as an option to mitigate disease spread.
Ontario’s chief medical officer told The Canadian Press last week that he would make a decision soon about masking recommendations based on viral illness trends that are straining the health system.
Dr. Kieran Moore said he would make a recommendation on masking in certain indoor settings if the backlog of delayed surgeries is affected by COVID-19, and would recommend reinstating mask mandates if there are further effects.
Asked about the possibility of reintroducing mask mandates at a news conference Wednesday, Premier Doug Ford said he would continue to follow Moore’s advice.
“Wear a mask when you can, if you’re within risk,” said Ford, encouraging anyone who hasn’t gotten their latest COVID-19 booster dose or flu shot to do so.
Meanwhile, at least one Ontario children’s hospital has opened a second intensive care unit to treat what it says is an unprecedented number of critically ill babies and young children.
The Ottawa-based Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, or CHEO, says the peak viral season has arrived early, sending kids to the hospital at levels “never before seen” in its history.
Dr. Lindy Samson, chief of staff at CHEO, says provincial funding made it possible for the hospital respond to the crisis, as the hospital sees more than double its normal volume of young patients who are arriving sicker than usual.
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