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Emergency Department pressures around the holidays

Posted Dec 15th, 2023

Niagara Health’s Emergency Departments (EDs), like many hospitals in Ontario, are feeling the stress of an increase in respiratory illnesses in the region, resulting in more visits, more hospital admissions and longer wait times.

“Our teams are working tirelessly to ensure patients are well cared for as the healthcare system faces this increased pressure,” said Interim Chief of Staff Dr. Satish Chawla.

To help alleviate the stress on our EDs, Niagara Health is asking people to know their healthcare options and only use the EDs for emergencies. Whenever possible, we ask people to contact their family doctor, visit a walk-in clinic or Urgent Care Centre, book a virtual urgent care appointment or call Health811. Pharmacists can also help with more than a dozen common ailments, which may prevent the need for a trip to the ED.

Getting vaccinated for influenza, COVID-19 and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) can also help people avoid a visit to the ED.

“While anyone can get really sick from viruses like COVID-19, the flu and RSV, we know there are vulnerable people in our community, such as children, the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions, who are more at risk,” said Niagara Region Public Health’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Azim Kasmani.

Chawla said while the number of patients seeking care is increasing, the good news is that the severity of the illnesses Niagara Health is treating is lower than in previous years.

 “Our healthcare system is already short on health human resources, and we are seeing a seasonal influx of employees also being hit with respiratory illnesses, so this spike in ED visits is hitting us hard,” Chawla said.

In the past two weeks, 6,458 patients – an average of 431 a day – have registered at our EDs in St. Catharines, Niagara Falls and Welland. Additionally, we have an average of 83 people waiting in our EDs for an in-patient hospital bed. 

Niagara Health’s in-patient beds are currently at full capacity, which means some patients may be transferred between our hospital sites to make the best use of our resources. Some of these patients are those who occupy hospital beds but no longer require hospital care, however they also can’t be discharged until they find placements elsewhere in the community.

“We have a strong plan in place to respond to this seasonal increase in hospitalizations, while continuing to provide high quality and safe care for everyone who needs it,” said Heather Paterson, Executive Vice-President of Clinical Operations, adding patients and caregivers are being notified about the plan. “Our plan includes moving some patients to other sites within our region to ensure all patients receive timely and appropriate care based on their medical needs. Each patient will be assessed individually to be sure that a move is safe.”

Niagara Health has also put a number of other strategies in place to help manage the influx of patients, including the upcoming return of our Fit2Sit program, in partnership with Niagara EMS, which, if your condition allows, permits patients to be taken to a chair to sit upright and monitored closely until they can be seen by a doctor or nurse.

“Niagara EMS appreciates the partnership of Niagara Health in pioneering initiatives such as Fit2Sit in Ontario, which help us further reduce offload delays and keep more ambulances in the community,” said EMS Chief Rick Ferron.

Also, Niagara Health is once again reporting COVID outbreaks at our hospitals on our website.

When to visit the Emergency Department

Call 9-1-1 for life-threatening, time-critical emergencies. Go to an Emergency Department to seek treatment for:

  •  Trouble breathing
  • Bleeding that won’t stop
  •  Chest pain or pressure
  • Broken bones
  • Partial or total amputation of a limb
  • Traumas or injuries to the head
  • Deep cuts or wounds
  • Severe burns
  • Severe pain
  • Poisoning
  • Loss of consciousness, unable to wake
  • Sudden headaches, dizziness, weakness, numbness, trouble seeing or speaking
  • Mental health issues (overdose,  thoughts of suicide, self-harm or harm to others)
  • Medical care for sexual and/or intimate partner violence 
  • Severely ill or injured children and infants
  • Obstetrical emergencies (early pregnancy complications, labour and delivery)

Niagara Health System