Manitoba parents worry format of respiratory virus town hall will keep people away

Some Manitoba parents say while they’re glad the province is holding a forum to give people information about caring for sick kids amid a rise in respiratory viruses, the format presents a barrier to people who want to ask questions.

The telephone town hall for parents and caregivers on Tuesday is open to anyone who wants answers from a pair of high-ranking Manitoba physicians.

But people who want to be on the line to ask questions of Dr. Elisabete Doyle, the medical director and section head of pediatric emergency medicine at the Children’s Hospital in Winnipeg, and Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer, need to register on the province’s website ahead of the 7 p.m. call.

Winnipeg mom Lauren Kelly, whose almost two-year-old daughter was recently in the pediatric intensive care unit with respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, said she wishes the province had made the town hall more easily accessible through an option like YouTube, where people could just pop in to ask a question without needing to sign up in advance.

“Parents are tired and busy and don’t have time for all those extra steps,” Kelly said.

Lauren Kelly’s almost two-year-old daughter was recently in the pediatric intensive care unit with respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. (Submitted by Lauren Kelly)

The town hall comes as Manitoba doctors warn of a “triple threat” respiratory virus season, with a combination of COVID-19, flu and RSV cases at risk of overwhelming hospitals in the province.

Virologist Julie Lajoie, who’s also a mom, said it’s key for public health to make information easily accessible to parents right now — and doing something like making people register for the session in advance is “a barrier we don’t need.”

“We need people to have information about how to protect themselves and how to protect the community,” said Lajoie, a research associate at the University of Manitoba.

A spokesperson for Shared Health — which oversees health-care delivery in Manitoba and is organizing the town hall — said having participants register with their phone numbers is the easiest way for organizers to reach a large number of people at once.

On top of the roughly 1,100 people who had registered as of late Tuesday afternoon, organizers will randomly call another 100,000 people in Manitoba just before 7 p.m. to see whether they want to participate or listen to the town hall, the spokesperson said.

And while only people on the call will have a chance to ask questions, the town hall will also be live streamed online and available to watch after it ends, the spokesperson said.

Pediatricians will also answer common questions about caring for kids with cold and flu symptoms in the coming days on Shared Health and the province’s social media feeds, they said.

What information do parents need?

Lajoie said it will be critical for the doctors in the town hall to explain things like which viruses are circulating and what people can do to mitigate spread, such as get vaccinated, stay home when sick and wear a mask in indoor public spaces.

She said it’s also important to get across that while a virus like RSV is primarily affecting kids, “it’s not just a children’s disease,” because adults can still transmit it and elderly people can still get sick from it.

Kelly hopes to hear information that will help parents like her make risk-management decisions, such as the number of RSV cases in places like schools and daycares. 

She also wants to know the province’s plans to slow the spread of respiratory viruses, even if that doesn’t include tough measures like ones seen earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are steps that can be taken that’s not this shut down society approach. No one’s asking for that,” she said.

“But I think there are ways that … we know work to reduce respiratory viruses.”

And while the town hall comes several weeks into an early respiratory virus season that pushed Winnipeg’s Children’s Hospital to crisis levels, virologist Lajoie said those illnesses aren’t going away anytime soon — so there’s still time to act.

“There’s going to be tons of respiratory viruses that will put more strain on the health-care system,” she said.

“So it’s never too late to try to help as much as we can.”