A new study from BC Children's Hospital and University of British Columbia researchers found a significant decline in the number of families with children accessing emergency departments across B.C. during the first peak of the pandemic.

The findings, recently published in Emergency Medicine Journal, suggest that many families may have avoided visiting emergency departments for minor illnesses from March 17 to April 30, 2020, during which public health emergency and stay-at-home orders were declared. 

Dr. Ran Goldman“This study demonstrates that stay-at-home orders during the peak of the pandemic in B.C. had a significant impact on families with children utilizing emergency departments,” says lead author Dr. Ran Goldman, investigator at BC Children's, emergency pediatrician, and professor in the UBC faculty of medicine’s department of pediatrics. “There are many reasons why families may have avoided visiting emergency departments, ranging from concerns over contracting the virus while in hospital to a desire to avoid overburdening the healthcare system.”

For the study, the researchers analyzed records from 18 emergency departments in Metro Vancouver, representing 60 per cent of the province’s population. Children up to the age of 16 were included.

The analysis revealed a 70 per cent drop in visits to B.C. emergency departments at general hospitals and a 57 per cent reduction in visits to the emergency department at BC Children’s between March 17 to April 30 2020 compared to the same time period in 2019. Overall, the number of children arriving to emergency departments declined by nearly 67 per cent compared to the previous year. 

The researchers also found that, while the overall number of admissions were less than the previous year, the admission rate actually increased from four to seven per cent. This suggests that, among children who presented to the emergency department, the proportion of serious illness was higher and minor illness lower, compared with the previous year.

Visits with symptoms related to fever and gastrointestinal issues among children saw the biggest decline (more than 70 per cent), followed by orthopaedic complaints (a drop of 69 per cent) and respiratory symptoms (a drop of 56 per cent).

While the researchers focused on B.C. emergency departments for this study, similar trends have been reported in Italy, England and Spain. 

“It is possible that physical distancing and the closure of schools reduced the spread of other viral illnesses, resulting in the decrease in emergency department visits,” says Goldman.

Dr. Goldman says the findings underscore the importance of ensuring the community is aware that hospitals are safe to visit in an emergency situation during the pandemic.

“If there is a significant increase in the number of COVID-19 cases or another lockdown period, it’s important that parents know emergency departments are continuing to safely serve families during the pandemic and that they shouldn’t delay bringing their children in when it’s a medical emergency,” says Dr. Goldman.

Credit UBC news story, November 5, 2020.