Top doctor at Ottawa children’s hospital asks people to mask amid viral surge

A top doctor at an Ottawa children’s hospital urged a broad return to indoor masking amid a surge of viral illnesses sending kids to hospital at unprecedented rates, saying action was needed to protect the youngest members of the community.

Dr. Lindy Samson, chief of staff at CHEO, said a record number of children were coming to the hospital with difficulty breathing, fevers and other conditions brought on by illnesses like influenza, respiratory syncytial virus, also known as RSV, and COVID-19.

While the hospital is doing all it can to deal with the influx of patients, the public has a role to play as well, Samson said.

“This is the time for our community to come together for our kids,” she told a meeting of the Ottawa Board of Health on Monday evening.

Read more: University of Waterloo brings back mask mandate in indoor instructional areas

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“What we are asking today is for our great community to put our masks back on whenever we’re in a crowded indoor space, including schools.”

Samson said the surge in kids coming to CHEO has resulted in patients being treated in the emergency room and surgeries being postponed because there are no beds available. Other children are being sent outside the region for care, she added.

On Sunday, 250 children came to the hospital’s emergency room, which is equipped to treat 150 patients per day.

“I’ve never seen it like this before, and I’m really worried,” Samson said.

The hospital is taking steps to address high patient volumes, like opening more units and hiring more staff, but Samson said efforts by the general population like wearing masks indoors and keep up with COVID-19 and flu vaccinations would help.

“While we’re doing everything we can, it’s not enough,” she said.

Read more: No plans to reimpose mask mandate, Toronto’s top doctor says

Elsewhere in the province, a hospital network called on the public to mask in indoor crowded spaces as respiratory viruses circulate.

The Huron Perth Healthcare Alliance said it is experiencing pressures in pediatrics with cases of RSV and already more cases of influenza than in all of the last flu season.

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The organization that runs four hospitals in southwestern Ontario advised people keep up to date with vaccinations, wear masks indoors and stay home when sick.

Meanwhile, an Ontario university announced Tuesday that it would reinstate a mandatory mask policy for indoor academic activities.

The University of Waterloo said the policy set to take effect Wednesday was prompted by data showing increased levels of COVID-19 and other viruses circulating, and a desire to minimize disruptions to the fall exam season.

Masks are no longer required in most schools, universities and the majority of other indoor spaces in Ontario after the province ended mandatory mask rules in most settings in the spring, though some organizations chose to keep them in place.

Dr. Kieran Moore, the province’s chief medical officer of health, told The Canadian Press last week that he would make a decision soon about masking recommendations based on viral illness trends that are straining the health system.

Moore has said the province is contending with a “triple threat” of a bad flu season, COVID-19 and a resurgence of RSV.

He said if COVID-19 starts affecting the ability to reduce the surgical backlog he would suggest the government make a recommendation on masking in certain indoor settings, and if there are further effects he would recommend reinstating mask mandates.

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In Ottawa, the city’s top doctor recommended Monday that people return to wearing masks as COVID-19 levels remain high, and other viral illnesses like influenza are spreading in an “extraordinary respiratory season.”

“While I see some people wearing masks indoors, there is room for improvement to reduce the level of spread of respiratory viruses in our community, and to keep our healthcare system working,” Dr. Vera Etches said.

The city’s board of health voted Monday night to send a letter to Ontario’s premier, health minister and chief medical officer asking for data and projections on this year’s respiratory illness season and its predicted impact on the health system.

The board also voted to ask that the province “intensify the visibility and reach of a mass health communications campaign” about the benefits of masking and vaccination.

The provincial health ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

COVID-19 vaccination rates are relatively low among children compared with the adult Canadian population. Federal data show that just one per cent of children age four and younger have received two COVID-19 vaccine doses and 41 per cent of children aged five to 11 have had two shots.

The vaccination rate jumps to 80 per cent for teenagers who have two doses.

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