Manitoba’s only pediatric hospital is preparing for a surge in COVID-19 admissions in anticipation of a fourth wave that will hit the unvaccinated hardest.
A spokesperson for Shared Health — which oversees operations of Winnipeg's Children’s Hospital — said a provincial working group focused on capacity is planning for "incremental increases" to meet demand this fall.
A request for an interview with a member of the working group was not accommodated.
"We are keeping a close eye on the developments in other jurisdictions, including those across Canada, and are preparing for the potential of increased pediatric patient volumes during a fourth wave and as children and adolescents return to school and other activities this fall," Shared Health said in a statement to the Free Press.
"COVID-19 continues to be a significant threat, especially with variants of concern that can spread more easily and affect younger populations."
In parts of the United States, particularly areas with low vaccination rates and wide community spread of the delta variant, COVID-19 infections in children have been on the rise. Last week, pediatric hospital admissions reached a record high of more than 1,900 cases across that country.
"All of us every day are reading about what is going on in the States and definitely feeling nervous that we could have similar situations here with the delta variant becoming more prevalent," said Dr. Marni Hanna, president of the Manitoba Pediatric Society.
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The day before he was supposed to start fourth grade, Francisco Rosales was admitted to a Dallas hospital with COVID-19, struggling to breathe, with dangerously low oxygen levels and an uncertain outcome.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, thought his frightened mother, Yessica Gonzalez. Francisco was normally healthy and rambunctious. At 9, he was too young to get vaccinated, but most of the family had their shots. She had heard kids rarely got sick from the coronavirus.
"We’re hopeful that we have better vaccine rates than they do in the main parts of the States that are having more of a problem, but there are places in Manitoba that do not have good immunization rates and I especially am worried about children that live in those areas."
As of Friday, 75 per cent of the eligible population in Manitoba was fully vaccinated. Children who were born in 2010 or later are not currently eligible to get a vaccine.
Severe COVID-19 illness in children has been uncommon thus far in Manitoba, and the hospital has not been pushed to the extent the adult acute-care system was, Hanna said.
However, pediatricians have noted an increase in mental-health concerns related to remote learning and family members becoming ill with the virus, she said.
Meanwhile, younger Manitobans with no other medical conditions have been getting sicker with COVID-19, Hanna said, adding the Children’s Hospital emergency department was forced to take older teens and young adults during the third wave.
According to Shared Health, 75 children have been admitted to hospital with COVID-19 since the pandemic began, including nine since the start of July. There have been approximately 15,000 confirmed cases in children and 0.01 per cent have required intensive care.
Still, Hanna said rising infections among children elsewhere are worrying.
"In Manitoba, we don’t have very great capacity for surges, and we all just saw how adult patients had to be sent out of province with the last wave," she said.
"I’m very nervous that we could have a situation like that for children, especially given that we really only have one hospital that is meant to service children in this province."
HSC Children’s Hospital has 10 beds in its intensive-care unit. The hospital also treats children from Nunavut, northwestern Ontario and eastern Saskatchewan.
Hanna said the society supports a vaccine mandate for teachers and school staff in Manitoba as one tool to help protect children. Continued mask use in schools will also help to reduce the transmission risk of the delta variant and other viruses, she added.
"With the loosening of restrictions and people getting together more, we’re worried about not only potentially seeing the delta variant, but also seeing flu viruses circulating and (respiratory virus).” – Dr. Marni Hanna
"Normally the return to school is a time when we definitely see an uptake in illnesses in children every year," she said. "So, with the loosening of restrictions and people getting together more, we’re worried about not only potentially seeing the delta variant, but also seeing flu viruses circulating and (respiratory virus)."
Hanna said flu shots for all kids six months and up should be a priority this fall.
"Keeping flu under control will really help with our capacity to deal with a COVID surge, and flu itself can suppress your ability to fight off other infections," she said.
Shared Health wouldn't say whether the group developing its fall capacity plans had been provided pandemic modelling for pediatric cases and hospital admissions.
Provincial public-health officials have not yet released pandemic models that include the vaccination and the delta variant, saying the models remain under review.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.