Hospitals overwhelmed by flu and norovirus patients
Published Thursday, January 10, 2013 10:06AM EST
Last Updated Thursday, January 10, 2013 1:33PM EST
As both the flu and the stomach infection nororvirus sweep across Canada, hospitals all over the country say they are being pushed to the limit.
In Edmonton and Calgary, the spike of influenza, influenza-like illness and gastrointestinal infections have put hospitals over maximum capacity.
Many Edmonton hospitals are operating at more than 100 per cent capacity because of the surge of patients needing admission. In Calgary, occupancy is above 100 per cent in major hospitals and over 100 per cent on certain medical units.
“In our emergency rooms, we would normally see about 150 patients a week with influenza; now it’s nearly 700,” Dr. Bill Dickout, medical director for the Edmonton zone of Alberta Health Services, told reporters Wednesday.
Dickout say the outbreak is limiting flexibility in managing hospital patients.
“When we have an outbreak in a centre, in order to try to contain the outbreak, we don’t allow other people to be admitted to that area if they can’t be safely isolated,” he explained.
Alberta Health Services has had to postpone five elective surgeries in Edmonton and as many as 11 in Calgary as a result of the flu outbreaks.
There are currently 1,145 lab-confirmed cases of flu in Alberta. That compares to just 72 lab-confirmed cases in the province at this same time last year. As well, Alberta Health Services says it’s dealing with 45 outbreaks in hospital wards and continuing care facilities, such as nursing homes.
British Columbia is contending with both seasonal flu and an outbreak of highly-contagious norovirus, sometimes called Norwalk. Two Metro Vancouver hospitals have had outbreaks, and more than 40 people have been quarantined at a residential care facility in Kamloops. There have been additional outbreaks at five Metro Vancouver daycare centres and a half dozen regional facilities in recent weeks.
Emergency departments all over the country are reporting heavy traffic from the flu, though in some places it looks to be improving.
In Ontario, the province’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Arlene King says Ontario is probably six weeks into what is typically an eight-week cycle of influenza, so flu activity may be starting to slow.
Dr. Stephen Porter, the head of pediatric emergency medicine at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children says the inpatient wards are at their peak capacity but hopes things will soon improve.
“The Public Health Agency of Canada tracks the flu and they’re telling us that flu is still widespread, although the number of flu cases is lower this week than it was at the end of December,” he told CTV Toronto.
A spokesperson for Quebec's public health agency says while emergency rooms have been busy, flu activity in that province appears to have peaked over the Christmas holidays.
In Manitoba, the chief provincial public health officer says visits to hospital emergency departments are definitely up, but hospitals haven't had to cancel surgeries.
Still, for many hospitals, they remain in the thick of it.
Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital reports it’s seeing higher volumes than usual at its emergency department and wait times there have increased. As well, about 10 to 15 per cent of its admitted patients are showing flu-like symptoms.
Many of the children are already fighting cancer or other ongoing conditions, so their resistance to the bug is low.
While some are saying this flu season may be the worst in a decade, infectious diseases experts say it's too soon to sum up the entire flu season. But most agree it’s safe to say the country is seeing one of its earliest surges in flu activity in years.
At a news conference Wednesday, Alberta’s Dr. Dickout reminded those sick with the flu that in most cases, the illness can be managed at home and there’s no need for emergency medical care. In fact, to avoid the risk of infecting others, it’s best to stay at home until you’re feeling better, they say.
Dickout said patients should also look into the other options available for their care to help reduce the pressure on emergency departments. In addition to seeing their family doctors, those worried about their symptoms can also visit walk-in clinics, urgent care centres, Primary Care Networks and Family Care Clinics.
Dickout added, though, that emergency rooms will never turn away those who need treatment.
Patients who are having trouble breathing or who are becoming dehydrated should seek immediate help. If their condition worsens slowly over time, they should also seek a doctor, since the flu can lead to bacterial pneumonia in some patients.
With reports from CTV Toronto’s Pauline Chan and The Canadian Press