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Hospital facing surge in respiratory infections

Thunder Bay's regional hospital anticipates wait times and surgical capacity could be impacted as it confronts a worse-than-average season for flu and RSV, combined with resurgent COVID-19 infections.

THUNDER BAY — With a confluence of viruses including COVID-19, influenza, and a respiratory virus dangerously straining hospitals in southern Ontario, the chief of staff of Thunder Bay’s regional hospital says the institution is preparing for challenges here to continue to grow.

Dr. Bradley Jacobson said the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre appears to be confronting more severe than average seasons of both the flu and the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), on top of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

“We do anticipate that things will worsen,” he said, based on data and projections from hospitals elsewhere in the province.

“Our concern is if we’re looking at where modelling has come from southern Ontario, and looking at paediatric hospitals as an example, some departments are at 200 per cent capacity in dealing with the very young and ill children,” he said.

The local hospital has seen increased cases of RSV, which can cause sometimes severe respiratory illness in children, but isn’t yet in the same boat, according to Jacobson.

“In conversations with our chief of pediatrics, certainly there’s been an increase from previous years, but at this point in time, it hasn’t led to over-capacity,” he said. “But certainly, their team is at the ready… if there’s a larger influx of these patients requiring admission.”

The confluence of viruses is largely behind a “huge influx” of people visiting Thunder Bay’s emergency department, Jacobson said.

Of 6,800 presentations to the ER over the previous month, around 1,700 were designated as respiratory influenza-like illnesses.

While the flu produces mild to moderate symptoms for most who contract it, Jacobson reported the hospital is seeing more severe symptoms at the extremes of age.

“Elderly people that present with influenza are requiring supplemental oxygen, fluid rehydration, and they’re at a much higher risk of a significant health impact from influenza,” he said.

RSV, meanwhile, is causing some “pretty significant health consequences” for young children.

The viral infections are also contributing to skyrocketing wait times in some hospitals.

“Looking at our partners in southern Ontario and speaking with some of my colleagues … some hospitals are projecting and actually experiencing now 24-hour wait times in their emergency departments,” Jacobson warned.

“Our local emergency department certainly hasn’t reached that state yet. I’m anticipating that we should not. But as everything converges, we can anticipate that wait times will increase.”

While he emphasized the emergency department remains available to help those who need it, “for the milder cases, we just encourage people to stay home and take care of themselves.”

Steps the hospital has taken in response to the surge of viral activity include providing flu shots to staff and maintaining its mandatory masking policy, Jacobson said.

“We certainly will continue our mask mandates within the hospital walls. Just looking at where things are heading this season, it’s going to be imperative. [There’s] no sign of us stopping that soon.”

The hospital could also consider limiting visitation policies and reopening respiratory units if needed, he added.

Jacobson hopes the public will also see the benefits of immunization and masking to help protect themselves and others in the community.

“Every individual has to make their own choices,” he said. “I’d prefer people consider masking and staying at home if they are unwell. I mean, the implications of a huge influx of influenza [and] COVID at this point in time could be significant, and very overwhelming to the health care system.”

Ian Kaufman

About the Author: Ian Kaufman

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