Military sending medical teams to pandemic-stressed Ontario hospitals

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Paramedics with Ornge ambulance service load a patient outside Scarborough General Hospital in north-east Toronto on Apr. 8, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
Paramedics with Ornge ambulance service load a patient outside Scarborough General Hospital in north-east Toronto on Apr. 8, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

The Canadian Armed Forces will deploy up to three medical assistance teams to help support critical health care facilities in Ontario now straining under the weight of a surging COVID-19 caseload, the Liberal government announced today.

Starting tomorrow, the air force will also begin flying in extra medical staff offered to Ontario by other provinces to help ease the crisis, the Public Safety Department said in a statement. A relief flight with medical personnel from Newfoundland will arrive Tuesday.

"Since the beginning of the pandemic, in our most difficult moments, Canadians have relied on the Canadian Armed Forces for help," Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said in a statement. "No matter the challenge, our people in uniform have been ready to help.

"The Canadian Armed Forces will be there for Ontarians in their time of need alongside our partners. We are ready, willing and able to help Ontarians through this tough time."

The troops being deployed are expected to number three dozen or more, and will include nurses and technicians who will help respond to the rising critical care caseload, particularly in the Greater Toronto area. The military also will help to coordinate health logistics.

"Work is currently underway to complete on the ground assessments, which will determine the exact number of CAF personnel who will be dedicated to this request," the Public Safety statement said.

Instead of simultaneous deployments, medical assistance teams will rotate in and out of the province to ensure that military support remains sustainable, the statement added.

The military medical system was put under heavy strain last year when troops were sent into nursing homes. The Armed Forces health care branch was effectively stripped to its bare essentials in order to complete the mission.

Ontario made the formal request for help just days after it turned down an offer by the federal government to send in extra personnel.

In a media statement, provincial Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said the province has "made a request for the assistance of those identified resources, many of whom reside, for example, within the Canadian Armed Forces and Canadian Red Cross organizations."

Military medical teams were sent in a year ago to help backstop long-term care homes that had been overrun by coronavirus cases in Ontario and Quebec — a extraordinary deployment that exposed some horrific conditions in some facilities.

Canadian Armed Forces personnel arrive at the Villa Val des Arbes seniors residence in Laval, Que., on April 20, 2020.
Canadian Armed Forces personnel arrive at the Villa Val des Arbes seniors residence in Laval, Que., on April 20, 2020.(Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Some nurses, medical technicians and ordinary soldiers spent months caring for elderly patients in 54 nursing homes in both provinces during the first wave.

Fifty-five members of the military contracted COVID-19 while serving in those centres, according to testimony heard by a parliamentary committee last fall. All of the soldiers recovered and none required hospitalization.

The military also has been heavily involved in the planning and coordination of vaccine distribution, with senior officers and staff seconded to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, who had been the chief of staff at the military's operations command, was named vice president of logistics and operations at the health agency and has worked alongside a team of military logisticians who have experience with moving major medical resources around the world.