While children have been largely statistically unscathed by COVID-19, doctors are concerned that fear of the virus may be keeping parents from seeking medical help for kids with other illnesses.
Pediatricians across the country have noticed a drastic drop in emergency room visits, and some hospitals report that those who do come have more advanced symptoms than normal.
“They’re needing much more resuscitation and care than they should,” said Dr. Kevin Chan, chair of the Canadian Paediatric Society’s acute care committee.
He practices at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, where visits to the ER dropped by about two-thirds since the pandemic began..
“I personally have seen some very sick diabetics,” he said.
The same situation has played out at CHEO, the children’s hospital in Ottawa, where there has been a 70 per cent drop in new cases of diabetes in the last 30 days. Those that do show up at the emergency room are sicker than doctors there typically see.
Childhood cancer patients at CHEO are also only coming in to be seen and treated after they’ve experienced symptoms for longer than usual, according to a statement from the hospital.
That suggests parents have waited longer to get help.
Ideally, doctors want to diagnose illnesses early because most diseases are harder to treat as they become more advanced, Chan said.
Several hospitals have scaled back the number of staff at children’s emergency rooms because of the decreased demand.
So far in Canada, 1,025 kids aged 19 or younger have tested positive for COVID-19, which makes up less than five per cent of total cases.
Though children seem to have contracted COVID-19 in much smaller numbers and are less likely have a serious case when they do get it, researchers are still unsure what role kids play in transmission of the virus. They could be carriers, for example, and pass the virus on to people at greater risk than themselves.
Chan said it’s a difficult balance for parents who don’t want to unnecessarily expose their kids.
But hospitals are taking precautions to try to prevent infections, including screening patients as they enter and placing potentially infectious patients away from non-infectious ones.
“I hope parents aren’t afraid to get their kids care or at least seek out help if they think their kids are sick,” Chan said.
That said, fear isn’t the only thing keeping kids out of the hospital.
The number coming to the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton, Alta., has dropped off precipitously since March as well, but part of that can be credited to the public health measures that are in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, said Dr. Bruce Wright, the divisional director of the hospital’s emergency department.
Schools have been cancelled for more than a month, as have sports. Colds and flu that typically spread like wildfire through schools and daycare centres all winter were stopped in their tracks when kids were sent home last month.
“Because they are not coming into contact with as many people, typical viruses aren’t spreading,” Wright said.
Sports-related injuries are also way down.
The extra capacity has given hospitals room to prepare for a potential surge in COVID-19 cases, he said, adding that it’s still important for parents to remember that the hospital is open for those that need it.
It’s not clear what will happen once the current health crisis passes, Chan said.
There is sure to be a backlog of elective procedures, surgeries and certain preventative diagnostic tests, which have all been put off to make sure hospitals can focus on the COVID-19 threat and not expose patients to the virus unnecessarily, he said.
The good news is, as summer approaches and the usual flu season ends, hospitals will hopefully have the capacity to deal with those backlogs quickly, as long as there isn’t a surge in non-COVID related health concerns.
© 2020 The Canadian Press