Kingston hospitals prepare for influx of patients as respiratory illness levels climb

Kingston General Hospital, overlooking King Street and Lake Ontario. Photo by Michael Amesse.

With COVID-19 no longer top of mind for many, and the increasing difficulty of finding out details on the prevalence of the virus through government agencies, it would be easy to think that this respiratory illness season is taking it easy on the Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington (KFL&A) region.

However, the reality is far different. The season that typically sees an influx of viral illnesses like influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and, yes, COVID-19 is seeing exactly that this year. The rate at which respiratory illnesses are spreading has the Kingston region at a high risk of transmission currently, according to data via KFL&A Public Health.

While the “respiratory virus surveillance” dashboard of the KFL&A Public Health website cautions that “regardless of indicator levels, December through February is considered to be a period of higher risk for transmission of respiratory illness,” that information does not negate the fact that all five indicators used to assess the risk locally are currently classified as “above risk threshold.” Those five indicators are:

  • Wastewater levels for COVID-19
  • Per cent positivity for COVID-19, influenza, and RSV
  • Respiratory-related emergency department visits
  • Active respiratory hospitalizations
  • Active respiratory outbreaks

All five of those, as of Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023, show that COVID-19, influenza, and RSV are all currently circulating in the KFL&A region.

This circulation is taking place particularly among younger folks, possibly because children are often in group settings at school, sports, and other activities. Because influenza has been circulating in KFL&A since it was first detected locally back in September, KFL&A Public Health and Leeds, Grenville and Lanark (LGL) Public Health issued a joint notice earlier this week urging area residents to get their flu shot if they haven’t yet.

On Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023, both health units “strongly” advised getting vaccinated against the flu, with a particular emphasis on individuals under the age of five.

“Getting your annual flu vaccine is an essential step in protecting yourself, your family, and vulnerable groups within our community from the seasonal flu,” said Dr. Piotr Oglaza, Medical Officer of Health at KFL&A Public Health.

“The flu vaccine is recommended for everyone six months of age and older, and it is particularly key for children and high-risk individuals.”

KFL&A Public Health noted that it takes approximately two weeks for vaccines to be effective, “making now the best time to get vaccinated.”

“With the flu season underway, the risk of infection is expected to peak towards the end of December and the beginning of January,” the local health unit said.

“In addition to influenza, high-risk individuals are strongly encouraged to receive a COVID-19 XBB vaccine if it has been at least three months, or 84 days, since their last COVID-19 vaccination. Anyone six months and older who is not high risk is encouraged to get a COVID-19 XBB vaccine if it has been at least six months, or 168 days, since their last COVID-19 vaccine.”

According to the latest data from KFL&A Public Health, overall data shows the region following a similar trend seasonally in terms of visits to emergency departments, hospitalizations, and positive tests for respiratory illnesses. Wastewater indicators show COVID-19 at “very high levels,” but those levels are said to be “decreasing since last week.” Meanwhile, per cent positivity for COVID-19 is at 14 per cent this week (similar to last week), influenza is at 3.1 per cent (and increasing since last week), and RSV is at 6.1 per cent (and decreasing since last week).

While KFL&A Public Health’s data states that there are five active COVID-19 outbreaks (one of which is new), the local health unit only lists two of those outbreaks (one at Extendicare Kingston, the other at Trillium Care Community retirement home).

Further, there have been seven new cases of COVID-19 hospitalized since last week, with 17 cases of COVID-19 locally currently in hospital. No cases of influenza are currently hospitalized locally, and of the six active cases of RSV currently hospitalized, three cases are new this week.

This information, combined with the climbing numbers of hospitalized cases of COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses across the province, begins to point towards Kingston Health Sciences Centre (KHSC) re-assuming its role as a support for hospitals throughout the province. According to anonymous sources, local hospitals are preparing to accept an influx of patients, something KHSC confirmed with limited details.

KHSC said its teams are aware of the rising numbers in cases being hospitalized and are planning accordingly. Noting that respiratory illnesses in general are spreading across Ontario, the local health-care organization — which oversees the operations of Kingston General Hospital (KGH) and Hotel Dieu Hospital (HDH), as well as other local hospitals and clinics — confirmed that it will be announcing some changes in operations in order to accommodate more patients in the coming days. It is expected KHSC hospitals will receive a number of pediatric patients, given KGH’s advanced pediatric programming and expertise and the growing number of respiratory illness cases among children. Current data from KFL&A Public Health shows the number of respiratory illness cases presenting at hospital locally are highest among those aged 5 to 17 and those 65 and above, with the former age group averaging case numbers presenting to hospital that are notably higher than they have been over the past few years at this time of year.

As such, the top medical mind at KFL&A Public Health is reiterating the message put out by the local health units earlier this week: get vaccinated.

“As the holidays are arriving, KFL&A Public Health is reminding residents that flu season is on the rise, and the time to immunize is now. Vaccines take approximately two weeks to be fully effective, which is why now is the best time to get vaccinated. We want to ensure our region has a safe and enjoyable holiday season,” Dr. Oglaza said on Friday, Dec. 8, 2023.

“Please protect yourselves and your loved ones by getting vaccinated for influenza and COVID-19, along with using the other layers of protection that we know are effective. Vaccines are available at participating healthcare providers and participating pharmacies.”

For more information on how and where to get COVID-19 and/or influenza vaccinations, visit KFL&A Public Health’s COVID-19/flu vaccines page or the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark public health website.

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