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McMaster Children's Hospital emergency department
October 18, 2021

With viral illness on the rise in kids, MCH prepares for a difficult season ahead

The pediatric emergency department (ED) at has seen record numbers, says Dr. Christopher Sulowski, interim chief of the children’s ED at McMaster Children’s Hospital (MCH).

“School is back and so are the pediatric emergency department patients,” he says. August 2021 had the highest number of daily visits to the pediatric ED in one calendar month since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic back in March 2020.

Last month (September 2021) had the highest visit volumes since January 2020 and a 10% increase in volumes compared to pre-pandemic September 2019.

COVID, RSV, rhinovirus, enterovirus, parainfluenza are here – and influenza is on the way

Dr. Christopher Sulowski

Dr. Christopher Sulowski

There are several possible reasons for the increase, says Sulowski.

It could be due to COVID fears and parents bringing their children into the ED for symptoms.

It could be due to mental health pressures of a new school year and a return to semi-normal life. Mental health challenges have been prevalent in youth throughout the pandemic.

It could also be due rhino/enterovirus spreading (also known as the common cold) as well as more respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases, also a common respiratory virus.

The team is also seeing an increase in COVID cases among children, says Hamilton Health Sciences infectious diseases specialist Dr. Dominik Mertz.

“The fourth wave is now being driven more and more by the unvaccinated and this includes the under-12-year-olds by definition,” he said in an interview with The Hamilton Spectator.

The community is seeing more COVID cases in youth – and more visits to the ED – because of the stricter testing criteria for kids to return to school, and so, the need for testing children when they present with what otherwise would have been minor symptoms like a cough or runny nose.

It’s expected that kids will need to stay in the hospital far less than unvaccinated adults due to COVID.

COVID-19 vaccine side effects are not the issue

What is not causing an increase in pediatric emergency department visits at MCH? The COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Jeff Pernica

Dr. Jeffrey Pernica

“McMaster Children’s Hospital, and its emergency department, has not been busy because of children developing adverse effects post-vaccination,” says Dr. Jeffrey Pernica, infectious diseases physician at MCH. “The number of youth experiencing adverse events in our area, and across Canada, is very low – very much in line with the experience in other countries. This data definitely supports the fact that COVID-19 vaccination works and is safe for youth. It is likely that the vast majority of youth are likely to experience more benefit than harm because of the vaccine.”

It is very important for anyone who is eligible (currently 12+) to receive their COVID-19 vaccinations, as it is an important defense against serious illness, hospitalization and death.

Hamilton Public Health is currently planning the roll-out for vaccines for children 5-11.

MCH is preparing for a difficult winter

“Planning is ongoing for a potentially difficult COVID/RSV/flu season ahead,” says Sulowski.

The hospital has booked more doctors in the pediatric emergency department and, despite this, occasionally has had to call staff and physicians to come in from home in the evenings to help out with volume.

“The division of pediatric emergency medicine is digging deep and doing everything we can to help with the surge in patients. The team has really come together and worked hard to stay on top of volumes,” says Sulowski.

“Kudos to the emergency docs as well as the entire allied health team for stepping up to this challenge.”

Please note: Because of waiting room crowding, MCH has re-implemented the one patient-one caregiver policy. We know that this is hard on families, but we need to keep everyone socially distanced and as safe as possible. Free Wi-Fi is available to allow families to communicate and stay in touch.