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Unusually high number of sick kids bring Montreal ER to ‘critical level’

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The Montreal Children’s Hospital said it is turning some patients away and that nurses have cut their vacations short as the emergency room has become filled in recent days with “a significantly higher number of sick and seriously ill children.”

The hospital is dealing with an unusual surge in ER visits for children of all ages not typically seen in the middle of July, and is telling families whose kids have non-urgent conditions to seek other alternatives, such as their family physicians, walk-in clinics, or to call the Quebec government’s Info-Santé line.

“We must protect our ability to care for the sickest of our sick children,” Dr. Robert Barnes, the hospital’s associate director of professional services, told CTV News.

Barnes said the overcrowded ER is not seeing children showing up with COVID-19, although many do end up testing positive when they’re examined.

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Pediatric infections, gastrointestinal illnesses, or flare-ups of chronic conditions are among the conditions driving this summertime surge in hospital visits. Montreal Public Health listed the Children’s Hospital ER occupancy rate at 192 per cent on Sunday.

“And it’s that number that has reached a critical level that we’re alerting the public that if you do not have a serious medical condition you cannot be seen today at the Montreal Children’s Hospital emergency room because we are focusing all our attention on the most critical and seriously ill,” said Barnes.

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Nurses and other health-care workers are stepping up to deal with the increased demand, and more beds have been reopened recently, but Barnes said it’s not sustainable.

“Our nurses, our professionals, and all of our employees at the Children’s have gone above and beyond, some coming off of vacation, many coming in on their weekend off [when] it was not a day that they were to be working, and they are responding to the call to provide us with this additional capacity over our usual summer service levels in order to care for so many of these children,” said Barnes.

Dr. Robert Barnes, Montreal Children’s Hospital associate director of professional services. (Joe Lofaro/CTV News)

Even then, it’s still not enough to handle the workload, he said, “and it’s not something that we’re going to be able to keep up for a very long time.”

FRAGILE HEALTH-CARE SYSTEM

The ER at the Children’s is not immune to the general labour shortage in Quebec’s health-care system, Barnes acknowledged, and that bringing back workers from time off is burning them out.

The overcrowding comes at a time when physicians are raising concerns about the intense workload across Montreal’s ERs and an increasing number of health-care workers overall are off work due to COVID-19. As of Friday, the Ministry of Health said 7,138 health workers were absent due to self-isolation, waiting for PCR test results, or other coronavirus-related reasons.

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A pair of young doctors who are both leaving Montreal to practice in Toronto recently told CTV News the ERs are “chronically understaffed” and “stressed,” and complained that their workload makes it difficult to care for their own children at home.

“I love Montreal. It’s the city I grew up in, and to leave it again for the second time, it’s disappointing,” said Dr. Philip Stasiak, who is leaving with his wife, Dr. Daria Denissova.

The married couple said their decision to leave is two-fold: they blame the broken health-care system in Quebec as well as the implications of the controversial new language law, Bill 96.

The Lachine Hospital ER in Montreal and five other ERs across Quebec were forced to partially close over the summer due to a shortage of workers. The closures — mostly overnight — represent one in 20 across the province in what the province is describing as a temporary cutback in service.

“The next few months could be difficult,” said Health Minister Christian Dubé in a news release published in late June. Ontario is also facing a health-care staffing crunch that is seeing some hospitals issue warnings about emergency room closures over the summer months. 

While Quebec has hired 115 doctors for Montreal, family physician Dr. Mark Roper recently told CTV that 71 doctors are retiring in Montreal and 13 family doctors will leave for other regions, resulting in a net loss of 84.

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He said the hiring of 115 PREM positions is not enough to address the working conditions and patient care.

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