When hospitals become home: Children put up in wards when both parents have COVID

The unusual scenario underscores how spread within households amid stay-at-home orders is playing a key role in fuelling the pandemic. With a heavy impact on certain families

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As COVID-19 continues to surge across Canada, the virus has left some children in a surprising and “really difficult” predicament.

With both parents or caregivers hospitalized by the coronavirus and no relatives or friends to look after them, they’ve had to be put up in hospital as a sort of last-ditch foster home.

It hasn’t happened often but the unusual scenario underscores how spread within households amid stay-at-home orders is playing a key role in fuelling the pandemic. With a heavy impact on certain families.

“That’s something we’re really struggling with,” said Dr. Julia Orkin, a SickKids physician who liaises with community hospitals in the Greater Toronto Area.

“Two parents have to be admitted to hospital, and there’s no caregiver for the child,” she said. “We have seen that on a handful of occasions and that’s been really, really difficult for all teams involved.”

The result in some instances is “families as a whole being admitted to hospital,” said Orkin.

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Dr. Michael Warner, intensive care unit head at Toronto’s Michael Garron Hospital, said he hasn’t come across that situation himself, but has heard of it happening at a handful of other GTA hospitals.

Since the pandemic began early last year, Toronto’s Children’s Aid Society has periodically gotten involved when all of a family’s caregivers have fallen ill and “there does not appear to be other caregivers for their children,” said Alicia Pereira, an agency spokeswoman.

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Just in the last six months, it has had half a dozen such cases, she said, though in most of those instances the society was able to find a friend or relative to act as a guardian.

“In all situations, Toronto CAS works to keep children within their own communities,” said Pereira. “Where we can, we work with caregivers either prior to or during the hospitalization to make plans for their children.”

She said the agency urges parents to prepare for the possibility that COVID-19 could leave them unable to look after their kids.

That includes developing an emergency plan and involving the children to discuss it where appropriate. Some teenagers could provide care for young siblings if needed, said Pereira.

Parents should also have ready a list of alternative caregivers that could be easily accessed by hospital staff or child welfare workers, and instructions for any special needs of the kids, she said.

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“It is suggested to prepare a bag for your children, packed with all the things they would need if they go to a caregiver’s home,” Pereira added.

It would seem like an unusual precaution, but Ontario has seen as many as 2,000 or more people at a time in hospital with COVID-19 during the latest wave of infection, and a generally younger demographic than in the two previous spikes.

With lockdowns curbing some other types of transmission, households became “one of the main sources of spread,” said a study posted last October by scientists with Public Health Ontario and the University of Toronto.

The researchers identified just over 26,000 people who had tested positive by the end of last July and lived in a private home. Of those, the virus had spread to at least one other member of the household in almost 8,000, or 30 per cent, of the cases.

At Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, staff have looked after entire families seriously ill with COVID, said Dr. Gordon Rubenfeld, chief of the hospital’s trauma, emergency and critical care program.

“It’s quite strange because of the way the patients are being moved around the province,” he said. “Some (family members) will be in separate places.”

Among other factors, people who lived in neighbourhoods with above-average numbers of residents in each home were more like to see such secondary spread, the study concluded.

• Email: tblackwell@postmedia.com | Twitter:

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