The president and CEO of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children is making a plea to Ontarians to “do the right thing” by wearing masks in indoor spaces.
The emotional call from Dr. Ronald Cohn comes two days after SickKids announced it was cancelling surgeries to preserve space in its ICUs overflowing with kids ill with respiratory infections.
Cohn told the Star on Sunday he would support a mask mandate brought in by the province but implored people to put on a mask — whether or not they are required to do so, in order to help slow the surge of kids flowing into ERs and relieve the unprecedented pressures on hospitals.
“I would support a universal mask mandate, but I’m appealing for people to wear a mask no matter what,” Cohn said.
“My main message to people is: if you read what is happening, and if you hear what is happening, do the right thing … You don’t need a mandate to wear a mask. That is what I’m urging people to do.”
Calls have been growing for the province to bring back mask mandates as health experts warn of a difficult viral season and hospitals grapple with the triple threat of COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus.
A spike in RSV infections and other respiratory illnesses is sending a massive wave of young children to hospital, leading to record-long waits for care, pediatric ICUs operating beyond capacity and adult hospitals having to care for older teenage patients.
Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, is expected to urge people to voluntarily mask indoors during an update at Queen’s Park Monday. He has previously “strongly recommended” those at higher risk of illness from COVID and other viral infections to wear masks indoors, including on public transit and in shopping malls.
On Sunday, Premier Doug Ford told reporters that he follows directions from Moore, and that people should “wear a mask every time possible” and ensure they are up to date on their COVID and influenza vaccinations.
SickKids on Friday announced it was cancelling scheduled surgeries starting Monday to create capacity in its overstretched ICUs and is prioritizing emergency and urgent procedures and the most time-sensitive cases. It’s the first time the hospital has ramped down surgeries in order to redeploy staff during the pandemic.
“It was a very, very difficult decision we had to make,” Cohn told the Star. “Over the last week, things have escalated so much, with so many children requiring ICU care, and so many who are quite ill and requiring ventilatory support, that we felt like we had to create additional capacity because there is no question this will get a little bit worse before it gets better; the pressures will become higher.”
On Friday, SickKids said its ICUs had for several days been above 127 per cent capacity. Cohn said the critical care units are now above 130 per cent capacity and the hospital’s general pediatric units are at about 133 per cent capacity, “a significant increase” compared to the fall of 2019. He also noted pediatric units at community hospitals are “significantly above capacity as well.”
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These pressures, combined with a high number of kids coming to SickKids’ emergency department — there were close to 9,000 visits between Oct. 3 and Nov. 7, an increase of about 2,000 visits compared to a similar period prior to the pandemic — forced the hospital to cancel scheduled surgeries, said Cohn. He said the move is “heartbreaking for the families” and that it’s “morally distressing” for medical professionals to not do surgeries in a timely manner.
“There is no child who ever has an elective surgery. There is just a question of what is life-saving, what is very urgent and what is less urgent.”
Cohn said between 50 and 100 children at SickKids are affected by the decision to postpone surgeries, though the numbers could increase “depending on how long we need to do this.”
Wait times for pediatric surgeries have risen during the pandemic with more than half of the kids on lists now waiting beyond the clinically safe window.
McMaster Children’s Hospital (MCH) and CHEO, a pediatric hospital and research centre in Ottawa, have recently also postponed surgeries to free up space and specialized staff to care for children with respiratory illnesses. On Friday, Hamilton Health Sciences made the decision to have some teenage patients ages 16 and 17 receive their surgeries at its adult acute sites instead of at MCH.
The Ontario Hospital Association released a statement Saturday stating hospitals are “increasingly concerned about the deepening impact” of the rapid spread of respiratory illnesses leading to “growing pressures on emergency departments and hospitalization of patients, especially in pediatric hospitals.” The OHA said it’s urging people to wear a mask in crowded indoor spaces, among other measures, to protect children and other vulnerable people.
Cohn said he is appealing to people to “layer their protections” during this viral surge, including staying home when sick, getting their COVID and influenza vaccines and masking.
“I do think everybody should wear a mask in crowded indoor spaces; there’s no question about that.”
He said he tells those in his social circle why vaccines and masks are necessary to help curtail respiratory infections that are making so many young children sick and straining hospitals.
“When I explain to them what’s actually happening, that we have 22 children who are on a ventilator, who don’t have any underlying medical complexity and who are really ill, I think they do get it.”
With files from Robert Benzie.
Megan Ogilvie is a Toronto-based health reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @megan_ogilvie
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