An Ontario field hospital built during the start of the pandemic will begin taking patients this week as a worsening wave of COVID-19 infections pushes the health-care system to its limits.
The Burlington, Ont., facility on the grounds of Joseph Brant Hospital was ready to treat patients as of Monday, the hospital said. Hospitals in the region were working Tuesday to identify patients ready for transfer.
The field unit was built in April as part of the hospital network’s capacity plan -- one of several to go up across the province during the pandemic.
Hospital CEO Eric Vandewall said it was deemed time to use the 73-bed all-season facility to keep scheduled surgeries and important services running as acute care units reach their full capacity with COVID-19 patients.
"The (field unit) is, in a sense, an insurance policy, and one that you hope you never have to use," Vandewall said in an interview Tuesday.
"We've very fortunate to have the resource. It's troubling obviously, that we're having to use the resource at this time."
COVID-19 infections have put pressure on hospital capacity across the province, especially in the southern Ontario region that includes Hamilton, Niagara, Haldimand, Brant and Burlington.
"The system is more stretched than it's ever been before and, unfortunately, all the indicators still are heading in the wrong direction," Anthony Dale, president of the Ontario Hospital Association, said on Tuesday.
"In some cases, they're accelerating, so the situation is actually getting much worse."
Rob MacIsaac, president of Hamilton Health Sciences, had said earlier the health-care system was "being stretched to its limits.”
As of Tuesday, the province said 1,347 people were hospitalized from COVID-19. Of those, 352 were in intensive care and 245 on ventilators.
Hospitals are identifying patients this week whose care has progressed enough to be treated at the Burlington field unit, after consulting with their families.
Those would be cases where the patient's condition has stabilized but they still require help that wouldn't be available at home, Vandewall said, like oxygen therapy, help with medication or monitoring of their symptoms.
Staffing has been a challenge during this wave of infections, Vandewall said, but there are currently enough staff for 30 beds, with plans to increase capacity this month if necessary.
Family doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and community care workers are among those staffing the field unit.
Vandewall said the hospital is willing to set aside regional boundaries and accept overflow patients from elsewhere in the province if there is a need.
"Those boundaries no longer are in play," he said. "We're certainly here to provide that support, if called upon."
Other field hospitals in Ontario have been used for various purposes during the pandemic.
In the spring, more than 50 long-term care home residents who tested positive for COVID-19 were admitted to a Windsor, Ont., field hospital.
That hospital in an unused sports facility went up over a two-week period in April to prepare for possible overflow of patients whose cases were no longer acute, and to isolate infected care home residents to limit spread in the homes.
At the moment, the space is being used as a vaccination site.
The Windsor Regional Hospital said the field unit is not suited to treat acutely ill COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized in the region and it's not currently being used as an in-patient facility, though staff are prepared for that possibility.
Hospital spokesman Steve Erwin said a staffing crunch during the second wave is a factor when it comes to the field unit.
"Our human resources are not unlimited," Erwin said. "All hospitals and all jurisdictions are facing the same kind of staffing pressures right now."
In London, Ont., a COVID-19 vaccination program is being deployed at the London Health Sciences Centre's field hospital unit, located at the Western Fair District Agriplex.
The hospital put out a call for nurses this week to assist with vaccination efforts at the facility.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 5, 2021.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press