Children with COVID are flocking to the emergency room at McMaster Children’s Hospital

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The sixth wave is hitting McMaster Children’s Hospital with a large number of children entering the emergency room with COVID.

“The ER is a lot busier,” said Dr. Angelo Mikrogianakis, Head of Pediatrics. “More children are unwell and picking up the virus and are sick for a few days, so that pressure is on our emergency department. We have unusually high volumes and long wait times.”

So far, the surge hasn’t resulted in more children being hospitalized for COVID.

“There are more children who are not well but not so sick that they need to be hospitalized,” Mikrogianakis said. “If you look at our hospital admissions, they’re about ​​what they were during the COVID pandemic.”

However, Public Health Ontario warned that the trend could change as more children become infected with the more transmissible subvariant BA.2 Omicron, which is driving the sixth wave and has been dominating the province since around March 10.

“The number of children with serious illnesses is likely to increase,” said the agency’s April 8 report on BA.2. “This can impact the capacity of children’s hospitals and intensive care units (ICU) and also further disrupt the person learning in Ontario.”

So far, there has been no sign of more serious illness in children, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health said on April 11.

“The risk of children in the ICU has not increased significantly,” said Dr. Kieran Moore. “We have not seen any significant threat to children’s health.”

McMaster had six children hospitalized with COVID on April 13. It is working internally and with other Ontario children’s hospitals to prepare for a potential spike.

“The number of pediatric COVID patients admitted … has remained low and relatively stable during the Omicron and sixth waves,” the hospital said in a statement.

But the ER is a different story, reflecting the increasing prevalence of omicron in the community.

McMaster saw 466 children with COVID in January and February alone — nearly eight a day.

“The number of children that are coming is very high and combined with the pressure on staff, the system is very challenging,” said McMaster.

Hamilton hospitals have been grappling with high numbers of staff and doctors self-isolating. Though it’s not broken down by hospital, Hamilton Health Sciences was missing 371 of its employees as of April 14.

“Our staff are getting sick and need to isolate themselves,” Mikrogianakis said.

Both Public Health Ontario and Mikrogianakis provide the same reasons for the increasing number of infections in children.

“We have started to open up our society and we have reduced our mask requirement,” said Mikrogianakis. “We have more freedom and are returning to normal.”

Public Health Ontario directly linked mask removal to a factor in the rise of the sixth wave and recommended it be made mandatory again in public settings, including schools.

It advised a cautious approach because “there are gaps in surveillance data to inform timely public health actions related to Ontario’s pediatric population.”

The Hamilton-Wentworth Borough School Board has also issued open letters to the city’s Department of Education and the City’s Health Department calling for the mask requirement to be reinstated.

In the absence of a mandate, Mikrogianakis said, each family must decide for itself what to prioritize.

“Every decision has a consequence that comes with it,” said Mikrogianakis.

For those who don’t want to wear masks: “With this COVID and how contagious it is, there’s a very good chance it will get into your home and you’ll get the disease. The good news is that (children) don’t get seriously ill,” he said.

For those who don’t want to get COVID: “If you don’t want your child to get sick, you can minimize it by wearing a mask. Make sure everyone who can be vaccinated can be vaccinated,” Mikrogianakis said.

Public Health Ontario also addressed low childhood immunization coverage. There is no COVID vaccination for children under the age of five. Uptake is low in people aged five to 11, with only one in two receiving one dose and one in three receiving two doses. Among 12- to 17-year-olds, only 14 percent received their third booster shot.

“From a pediatrician’s perspective, all of the vaccines that we offer children are safe and one of the most effective public health measures that we have, and that includes the COVID vaccine,” Mikrogianakis said. “We think that if they get COVID now, it’s a safe and effective way to minimize their illness and to make sure they have as mild illness as possible.”

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