New data released today by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) examines how Canada’s health care systems were impacted by COVID-19 from March to June 2020, a period widely referred to as Wave 1 of the pandemic.

Emergency departments (EDs)

  • ED volumes dropped an estimated 25,000 visits a day in April 2020 compared with April 2019, representing approximately half the usual number of patients. This trend continued throughout Wave 1, but volumes had rebounded to about 85% of typical visits by June.
  • There was a 6% increase in the number of deaths in the ED. Cardiac conditions were the most commonly reported among those who died between March and June in both 2019 and 2020.
  • Those who went to the ED waited less time to see a physician.
    • In Ontario, the median ED wait time during this period was 46 minutes, down 27 minutes from the median wait time in 2019 (1 hour and 13 minutes).

Hospital care

  • To accommodate a potential surge of COVID-19 patients, hospitals cancelled less-urgent surgeries. There were more than 320,000 fewer planned inpatient surgeries and day procedures from March to June 2019 compared with 2020 in Canada (excluding Quebec).
  • Hospitals prioritized life-saving/urgent surgeries and medical care, and generally operated below capacity from March to June. By June, occupancy levels had returned to 75% of the previous year’s.
  • While there was an increase in respiratory conditions in intensive care units (ICUs), mainly due to COVID-19, overall occupancy was below the previous year’s occupancy.

Virtual care

  • To facilitate physical distancing, physicians provided in-person care in urgent situations only, and overall patient care dropped across all health care relative to the previous year.
  • Physicians adapted quickly to the pandemic, with 55% of patient visits, physician-to-physician consults and psychotherapy provided online or by phone in April 2020.

Home care

  • Provision of home care also changed during Wave 1, with 41% fewer initial home care screening assessments by April 2020 compared with the previous year. Screening assessments are the first step in setting up regular home care visits for a client.


This data helps us understand how the first wave affected different types of health services. As the pandemic evolves, we will continue to monitor these trends, supporting health system planners in their efforts to provide necessary care to patients, preserve capacity for COVID-19–related surges and minimize the risk for both patients and health care providers. — Kathleen Morris, Vice President, Research and Analysis, CIHI
I think we were all a little surprised to see how readily the health care system could shift to the use of virtual care to enable access and to maintain certain operations. The flip side is that virtual care doesn’t suit everything, and in a climate of infection transmission we still had to find ways to safely offer in-person care. Also, virtual care is far more complicated than it may seem. Privacy and security, documentation, the connectedness of the technology and how providers are paid for virtual care are just some of the factors to consider. — Cassie Chisholm, Director, Primary Health Care, Department of Health and Community Services, Government of Newfoundland and Labrador

This data release includes information on Canada’s EDs, access to inpatient surgery, how Canadians received care from physicians — including virtual care — and home care. Get more information and access all data tables.

CIHI will host a web conference on November 26 with a panel of health care professionals, experts and patients to continue this important conversation and elaborate on the impact COVID-19 had on health care systems during Wave 1 of the pandemic.

COVID-19 Intervention Scan

  • CIHI has also developed a comprehensive scan of federal, provincial and territorial government policies and other interventions implemented in response to COVID-19.
  • The scan provides comparable information on case counts, key health interventions for case finding and management, physical distancing, health sector interventions and travel restrictions.

About CIHI

The Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) is an independent, not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing essential health information to all Canadians.

CIHI works closely with federal, provincial and territorial partners and stakeholders throughout Canada to gather, package and disseminate information to inform policy, management, care and research, leading to better and more equitable health outcomes for all Canadians.

Health information has become one of society’s most valuable public goods. For 25 years, CIHI has set the pace on data privacy, security, accessibility and innovation to improve Canada’s health systems.

CIHI: Better data. Better decisions. Healthier Canadians.

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