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Sending sick children to faraway hospitals is ‘not ideal,’ Ontario’s health minister says

Posted: December 12, 2022

(December 12, 2022)

By: Rob Ferguson, Toronto Star

Health Minister Sylvia Jones acknowledges it is “not ideal” that kids are being sent far from home because local children’s hospitals are swamped by a post-pandemic surge of respiratory viruses like flu and RSV.

“I get it. It’s not ideal as a family to have a child that far away,” Jones said in the wake of a Star story about a Simcoe boy who was flown by Ornge air ambulance to Kingston because there were no children’s hospital beds available in Hamilton or London.

“But it is also important to appreciate that, by doing that air transport, that child was able to be assessed and treated sooner.”

Between Oct. 1 and Dec. 2, Ornge transported more than 544 patients under age 18, a significant increase from previous years. At least 25 have gone to Kingston General Hospital.

The remarks in Collingwood, where Jones announced $20 million in funding to help smaller hospitals operate magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, came with Premier Doug Ford’s government under increasing pressure to help hospitals cope with rising patient levels as the Christmas social season is expected to fuel transmission of illnesses.

Ford offered this advice Monday when asked what Ontarians should do to manage the virus season and overcrowded hospitals:

“If you haven’t got a flu shot, go get one,” he told reporters in Pembroke.

Four-year-old Remy Rutherford was critically ill with a bacterial infection that local hospital doctors quickly realized needed specialized care in a pediatric intensive care unit.

The boy’s family had called an ambulance to take him to the hospital in Simcoe, south of Brantford. Before long, limp and feverish with cold hands, hooked up to an IV and monitors tracking his vital signs, Remy was on a stretcher attended by two critical-care paramedics for the flight to Kingston General Hospital.

He was diagnosed there with a Strep A infection and childhood hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, a rare and potentially fatal condition that causes a buildup of a type of white blood cell that can lead to organ damage. He spent a week sedated on a ventilator to breathe.

“It was absolutely terrifying to be on an airplane going somewhere else for care because your child is that sick,” his mother, Stephanie Rutherford, told the Star’s Megan Ogilvie.

“Children deserve better. There shouldn’t be a bed shortage. There shouldn’t be a Tylenol shortage. There shouldn’t be a nurse shortage.”

Jones said the hospital system is functioning as it should in challenging times.

“It’s, frankly, an example of how our hospitals are working together,” she told reporters at Collingwood General and Marine Hospital.

“So when we have high numbers of pediatric patients, primarily because of the virus season we are experiencing this winter, we have the opportunity through air ambulance, Ornge, to make sure that where there is capacity within the Ontario health system, we get that access to the patient as quickly as possible.”

Critics from opposition parties and lobby groups, such as the Ontario Health Coalition, said the province has not provided hospitals enough resources to handle the winter surge made worse by the fact the flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) have come roaring back after being suppressed by pandemic protective measures like masking and staying at home.

There is a “denial and downplaying of the hospital crisis and failure to address it,” said executive director Natalie Mehra of the coalition, which held rallies outside several hospitals Monday.

Interim NDP Leader Peter Tabuns said the government should be launching a “massive” flu and COVID-19 vaccination campaign and drop plans to appeal an Ontario court decision striking down the Bill 124 wage restraint legislation that limited nurses to one per cent wage increases.

“Ontarians can’t keep waiting for the solutions we know can help fix the health-care crisis,” he added.

Children’s hospitals have cancelled surgeries to keep ICU beds clear for patients who are critically ill from respiratory viruses this season and have transferred older teens to adult hospitals. McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton opened an after-hours and weekend “flu, COVID and cold” clinic Monday for children who don’t need emergency care but can’t get in to see their family doctor.

In Ottawa, the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario has opened a second ICU and has called on the Red Cross to provide staffing assistance.

“It’s a chilling indictment of this government’s management,” Dr. Adil Shamji, an emergency room physician and Liberal MPP for Don Valley East, told reporters last week.

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