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'It's just chaos in here all the time': IWK emergency department sees record number of patients

On Sunday, staff at the emergency department (ED) at the IWK in Halifax registered 200 patients over a 24-hour period, a number never seen before.

The interim head of the department, Dr. Katie Gardner, says they also saw the highest number of patients among them who were triaged as seriously ill.

“On our scoring system, a level 2 patient is the second highest level and there were 66 patients who were scored as a level 2, so that's extremely busy for our department,” says Gardner.

Gardner says the emergency department is now seeing around 140 to 150 patients a day, a number that has become “sustained," compared to seeing around 100 to 120 patients a day this time last year.

Mom Daphne MacIsaac rushed her nine-month-old, Bo, to the IWK Sunday around 4:30 a.m. after he began having difficulty breathing.

A previous trip to the IWK four days earlier had revealed he has RSV, also known as respiratory syncytial virus.

“I ran in there yelling, 'I need help, my baby's struggling to breathe,” recalls MacIsaac.

“And we saw a doctor within 20 minutes and they gave him a really good suction, he was full of mucus and phlegm,” she adds.

She and Bo stayed in a room at the emergency department for another few hours to make sure he was going to be alright.

Gardner says some patients chose to leave emergency without being seen due to long wait times, in some cases, more than 12 hours.

Respiratory illnesses in kids, including RSV, the flu, and the common cold, are all peaking months before normal, she says.

“We're seeing an earlier surge right now, it's really hard to predict, are we just going to sustain that for several months or is it going to come down earlier as well? It's just impossible to tell,” says Gardner.

Gardner says COVID-19 cases are still present, although she says other respiratory illnesses are “causing more difficulties for children right now.”

Gardner says all of that, coupled with lack of access to family doctors and walk-in clinics, plus trouble getting over-the-counter children's cold and flu medications, are all piling on top of existing skilled staffing shortages.

The president and CEO of Children’s Healthcare Canada says the situation is similar at children’s emergency rooms across the country.

 “It's an overnight crisis that has been decades in the making,” says Emily Gruenwoldt.

Gruenwoldt says over-burdened emergency departments and staff are symptoms of a system chronically under-resourced for years.

“It really comes down to the political will at this point, to acknowledge the challenges our systems are facing, the challenges our children are facing...and to make appropriate policies and investments,” she says.

She would also like to see governments create reserves of children’s medications, both over-the-counter and prescription, to avoid shortages.

“It was very scary,” says MacIsaac of her trip to the emergency department with her child, although she was reassured by the level of care she received.

However, she did see lines of people waiting to be triaged when she left after both visits.

“Even when I talked to the nurse in amongst them checking in on Bo, I did ask her, ‘It’s just chaos in here all the time isn’t it?’ And she said, ‘It is,’” she says.

Gardner says, with so many respiratory viruses active right now, it’s important for parents to monitor their child's symptoms closely.

“Any concerns about those things like breathing, hydration, activity level, as a parent if your instinct is that your child is not OK, we want you to seek care.” Top Stories

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