REGINA — Saskatchewan is seeing a spike in emergency room visits among children between the ages of one and four who are showing up with respiratory-like illnesses.
Chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, said it's likely to be COVID-19, because there's little influenza transmission in the province and vaccines against the virus have not yet been approved for children under five.
"Any COVID-like illness presentation in emergency rooms — where even you may not have been screened in every case — it's likely COVID-19," Shahab said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.
The latest data from the Ministry of Health, dated Feb. 19, showed preschoolers were visiting emergency rooms at a weekly rate of 110 patients per 1,000. That was higher than the average rate — 87.5 patients per 1,000 visits — in the previous six weeks for the same age group.
Children between one and four years old were almost three times more likely to visit the emergency room compared to all age groups combined.
Saskatchewan no longer publishes daily COVID-19 data, but releases a weekly epidemiology report that includes COVID-like illnesses in emergency rooms.
Shahab said it's a way to track how much transmission is in the community, since Saskatchewan no longer does extensive testing and limits PCR lab tests to people with specific risk factors.
"It's a good idea of how much respiratory illness is out there. Right now it's moderate throughout the province," Shahab said.
He added that any child under the age of five who has a fever, rapid breathing, or is not eating properly should be taken for emergency care.
"That remains important."
Dr. Ayisha Kurji, a pediatrician based in Saskatoon, said the Omicron variant has been affecting the airways of children and, in some cases, can trigger diabetes or cause pancreatitis.
"Most kids (who get COVID-19) still do well, that is true. But not all kids," Kurji said. "Sometimes previously healthy kids are still ending up in the emergency room or come to the hospital to get admitted."
She said children are showing up at hospitals with diarrhea, vomiting and croup — an infection of the upper airway that obstructs breathing and causes a characteristic barking cough.
How long they stay varies. Some children are coming in for oxygen to help with breathing, while some end up in intensive care.
Kurji recommended parents take their children to the hospital if they are dehydrated or not urinating regularly, breathing fast or having difficulty breathing, and are especially sleepy or fussy.
"Don't think of it in terms of COVID or not ... but look at the symptoms," Kurji said.
"The big thing is you know your child, so if you're worried about your child, and your instincts are saying you should go, it's always better to be safe and go get it checked out."
Saskatchewan has said it will continue to monitor COVID-like illnesses throughout the spring and fall.
"We know kids under five aren't vaccinated yet, so we can't give them the same protection that we can give ourselves and that we can give older kids," Kurji said.
"It's important to know what's happening with them, and is something that we need to maybe make some different decisions to keep them protected."
Saskatchewan lifted all of its public health orders Monday, including a requirement to self-isolate if positive for the virus.
Kurji said people can keep themselves and others at risk safe by continuing to wear a mask and getting fully vaccinated, including a booster shot.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 2, 2022.