Parents of young children say they would avoid going to the emergency room if they could get an appointment with a doctor in a timely fashion.

The Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario said this weekend it was experiencing a “spring weekend like no other” with an overwhelmed ER and a lack of beds. CHEO said, at one point, they had no beds for as many as 16 patients, requiring them to stay in the ER for up to 48 hours.

CHEO put out a lengthy Twitter thread Sunday explaining the situation, and asked parents to try to avoid the emergency room and consider alternatives, if possible.

But some parents say those alternatives simply don’t exist.

“We tried the family doctor several times, and they’re not seeing people in-person or, if they are, it’s extremely hard to get an appointment,” Jenna Jessop told CTV News Ottawa’s Stefan Keyes.

Jessop’s three-year-old son Owen became sick with a suspected ear infection, but after getting nowhere with the family doctor, they tried an urgent care clinic, only to be turned away.

“We were told we couldn't be seen because he had a fever, which is a COVID symptom,” she said.

CHEO was a last resort, because Telehealth also couldn’t help.

“Once we finally did get a call from telemedicine, they told us we'd have to see a doctor in person,” Jessop said.

It’s a problem that’s well known, even at the highest levels at CHEO.

“There are a number of those kids that are coming into the emergency department who need to be here and could be seen if they were able to get an appointment somewhere else,” said CHEO CEO Alex Munter, speaking in Newstalk 580 CFRA. “Those are, of course, unfortunately, the patients who will wait the longest.”

In a statement to CTV News Ottawa late Monday afternoon, a hospital spokesperson said the situation Monday was largely unchanged from the weekend.

“There is no improvement to our inpatient units, which remain super busy, as they have been for the last six weeks. On Sunday, our inpatient medicine floors were running at 122% capacity. Inpatient medicine is where the majority of admissions from Emergency need to go,” said Patrick Moore.

“Our Emergency Department continues to see a high volume of visitors and waits may be longer then usual. From June 1 to 12, we are averaging 235 visits a day. Our highest month on record, December 2019, averaged 248 per day. In May, we averaged 228 visits per day, which was our highest May ever.”


On top of a difficulty in finding care outside of the emergency room, two years of COVID-19 pandemic measures are also playing a role in the overall health of the youngest populations.

With masking, physical distancing, and isolation over, children are being hit by viruses they haven’t had a chance to build up immunity against.

“We’re getting them out of season, as well,” says infectious disease expert Dr. Neil Rau. “It’s what some people are calling an immunity debt.”

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch says, “There’s influenza, there’s respiratory syncytial virus, there’s a list of gastrointestinal viruses.”

The Public Health Agency of Canada has reported one of the busiest springs for influenza on record. PHAC says that while cases that require paediatric hospitalization are now on the decline, they remain at a higher level than normal for this time of the year.

There is also the issue of burnout among primary care providers and front-line health-care staff.

“Throughout the pandemic, many, many, many people left health-care,” Bogoch said.

Munter said CHEO has hired more doctors and more nurse practitioners, but the hospital is still encountering staffing shortages.

“When we’re dealing with record volumes, there are just so many nurses, or so many doctors that are available to do the work,” Munter said.

Jessop, meanwhile, said Owen is feeling much better. They were able to be seen at CHEO’s COVID-19 assessment clinic. And while he didn’t qualify for a swab, she was able to get antibiotics presecribed.

“I just needed someone to look in his ears. That was it,” she said.

CHEO posts wait times on its website.

And also includes a checklist of when to go to emergency and when to seek alternative care… if it can be found.

--With files from CTV News Ottawa's Stefan Keyes.