New Toronto field hospital prepares to accept COVID-19 patients as ICUs overflow

A new field hospital built in a parking lot at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto will likely be ready to accept patients this week as hospitals across the region try to deal with a record spike in COVID-19 caseloads.

The mobile health unit, as it is officially known, will provide care to patients who are recovering or have recovered from COVID-19. The unit will allow Sunnybrook to free up acute-care beds in hospitals during the third wave of the pandemic. 

Contained in a series of green tents, supported by an aluminum frame, the 2,088-square-metre unit has 84 patient beds, with room to expand to 100 beds if needed. The hospital hopes to open 20 beds in the unit this week, according to the manager in charge of the temporary medical facility.

Robert Burgess, Sunnybrook’s senior director of prehospital medicine, patient flow and emergency preparedness, said on Monday that the hospital is putting the finishing touches on the unit this week.

“We’re literally at the last pieces in terms of the structural setup,” Burgess said while wearing a mask inside the unit.

The unit is being prepared at a time when GTA hospitals are so overwhelmed due to record COVID-19 admissions that some patients are being transferred to other health-care centres outside the region, including southwestern Ontario.

A view of the inside of the mobile health unit at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto on April 19, 2021. (Kevin Van Paassen/Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre)

“We’re preparing this week, as quickly as possible, to start bringing patients in,” Burgess added.

“Obviously, when you open a new hospital, or you open a ward in a hospital, there’s a lot of work to do around staffing plans. We’re working through those to ensure we’re doing this in a safe fashion,” he added.

“Literally, with each hour that is passing, we’re becoming closer and closer to the point where we can start to bring in patients on a routine basis. The hope is that we can start to bring some patients in this week. If it’s safe to do so, we will proceed with that. We’re all eager to start that process.”

Burgess said the hospital wants to avoid bringing critically ill patients into the unit. 

Each pod of eight-to-10 beds is self-contained. Several large generators provide power for the unit. He said there are many windows to provide light.

He said “it would be great” if pressures eased on the health-care system in Ontario, the hospital did not need to use the unit and could dismantle it soon. 

“It’s meant to be here as another tool in the toolbox for emergency preparedness. That is something that we would hope, but we’re ready to help the province if it turns otherwise,” he said.

Contained in a series of green tents, supported by an alumimum frame, the 2,088-square-metre unit has 84 patient beds, with room to expand to 100 beds if needed. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Burgess said staffing is being finalized with the help of the Ontario health ministry. The hospital is currently training staff members, providing orientation and doing simulations inside the unit to ensure people feel comfortable working there. “We are looking everywhere to find additional staff,” he said.

He described the unit as a “system resource,” which means it could provide relief to hospitals in other areas of the province where there are pressures on the health-care system.

Sunnybrook has been asked to ensure the unit will be up and running for a minimum of three months. That time period could be extended depending on needs and patient volumes, he said.

Burgess acknowledged that the unit looks like a number of tents from the outside and can be startling to see, but said the unit is sophisticated on the inside.

“These are structures that were developed for medical purposes. Once you’re in, it’s very sophisticated, it’s very safe and very comfortable,” he said. 

“We’ve designed the structure to be safe for patients and staff. Hopefully, patients and staff will be pleasantly surprised when they see the inside for the first time.”

An under-construction field hospital on the grounds of Sunnybrook Heath Sciences Centre, in Toronto, is pictured on Apr. 6, 2021. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

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