Ottawa Hospital - Civic Campus (File Photo/CTV Ottawa)

The Ottawa Hospital saw fewer domestic violence and sexual assault survivors seek emergency medical treatment during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Ottawa Hospital Sexual Assault and Partner Abuse Care Program typically sees 60-80 patients over a two-month period. A new study from the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute shows 34 people visited the emergency department for treatment in the first two months of the pandemic.

"We were concerned about the rising risk of violence during the lockdown, and wanted to investigate how the pandemic was affecting access to emergency care for survivors of sexual and domestic violence," says Dr. Katherine Muldoon, lead author of the study and senior research associate at The Ottawa Hospital.

"In the first two months of the COVID-19 pandemic there was a 50 percent reduction in sexual assault and domestic violence cases seen in the ED, compared to the same months in 2018."

Researchers at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute believe there could be multiple factors behind the decrease in admissions.

"While it is possible that there was less domestic violence and sexual assault during this time period, the researchers don’t think this is likely," said a release from the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute. "A more likely explanation is that many people avoided hospitals entirely in the early days of the pandemic out of fear of contracting COVID-19."

The study notes emergency department admissions between March and May 2020 dropped by over 10,000 patients, a 33 per cent reduction compared to the same period in 2018.

Researchers say other possible factors for the decrease in people seeking medical attention include being isolated at home with a controlling or violent partner and unable to leave to seek care, or fewer social interactions with people outside the home.

Dr. Kari Sampsel, medical director of the Ottawa Hospital Sexual Assault and Partner Abuse Care Program, notes the United Nations issued a warning in March 2020 about the rising risk of domestic violence due to COVID-19 restrictions.

"In previous pandemics and emergencies, financial insecurity, job loss, quarantine and social isolation were associated with increased risk of sexual and domestic violence."

The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute study shows that during the start of the pandemic, survivors visiting the Ottawa Hospital had a median age of 25 and 89 per cent were female patients. The study shows 57 per cent had experienced sexual assault and 49 per cent had experienced physical assault. 

The most common locations for assault were in the assailant's home or the survivor's home, and in 52 per cent of the cases the assailant was a current or former partner.

The Ottawa Hospital Sexual Assault and Partner Abuse Care Program is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at the Ottawa Hospital Civic Campus emergency department.

"We want to understand how survivors are accessing care during the pandemic, particularly as lockdowns continue in Ontario," says Muldoon. "The full consequences of the COVID-19 restrictions on sexual assault and domestic violence may take months to appear, and we continue to monitor the situation."