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Pediatric primary care in Ontario and Manitoba after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic: a population-based study

Saunders N, Guttmann A, Brownell M, Cohen E, Fu L, Guan J, Sarkar J, Mahar A, Gandhi S, Fiksenbaum L, Katz A, Eze N, Stukel TA. CMAJ Open. 2021; 9(4):E1149-58. Epub 2021 Dec 14. DOI: https://doi.org/10.9778/cmajo.20210161


Background — There were large disruptions to health care services after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. We sought to describe the extent to which pandemic-related changes in service delivery and access affected use of primary care for children overall and by equity strata in the 9 months after pandemic onset in Manitoba and Ontario.

Methods — We performed a population-based study of children aged 17 years or less with provincial health insurance in Ontario or Manitoba before and during the COVID-19 pandemic (Jan. 1, 2017-Nov. 28, 2020). We calculated the weekly rates of in-person and virtual primary care well-child and sick visits, overall and by age group, neighbourhood material deprivation level, rurality and immigrant status, and assessed changes in visit rates after COVID-19 restrictions were imposed compared to expected baseline rates calculated for the 3 years before pandemic onset.

Results — Among almost 3 million children in Ontario and more than 300 000 children in Manitoba, primary care visit rates declined to 0.80 (95% confidence interval [CI] 0.77-0.82) of expected in Ontario and 0.82 (95% CI 0.79-0.84) of expected in Manitoba in the 9 months after the onset of the pandemic. Virtual visits accounted for 53% and 29% of visits in Ontario and Manitoba, respectively. The largest monthly decreases in visits occurred in April 2020. Although visit rates increased slowly after April 2020, they had not returned to prerestriction levels by November 2020 in either province. Children aged more than 1 year to 12 years experienced the greatest decrease in visits, especially for well-child care. Compared to prepandemic levels, visit rates were lowest among rural Manitobans, urban Ontarians and Ontarians in low-income neighbourhoods.

Interpretation — During the study period, the pandemic contributed to rapid, immediate and inequitable decreases in primary care use, with some recovery and a substantial shift to virtual care. Postpandemic planning must consider the need for catch-up visits, and the long-term impacts warrant further study.

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