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Feds send mobile health units to Ontario to address hospital capacity crunch

·4 min read

TORONTO — The federal government is sending two mobile health units to the Greater Toronto Area to help address the strain COVID-19 is placing on hospitals, as the facilities ramp up patients transfers to address a serious capacity crunch.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday the units will bring an additional 200 hospital beds to the area to help free up space for people who need intensive care and provide medical equipment and supplies.

"The spike in COVID-19 cases this month has put a real strain on hospitals," Trudeau said. "For Ontario in particular, the situation is extremely serious."

The federal government said the deployment comes in response to a request from the province earlier this week.

The units will be "deployed as rapidly as possible" and will be available to Ontario until May 1.

Federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said the mobile health units will also help with the transfer of non-critical care patients out of critical care units to free up resources.

"This will help relieve pressure on Ontario's strained hospital capacity due to the prevalence of COVID-19," he said.

The province will provide the staff for the units.

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said the units are another tool in the fight against COVID-19.

"As Ontario continues to add more hospital beds and build capacity in our health-care system, these new mobile health units will further help us alleviate the strain on our hospitals and intensive care units," she said in a statement.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the Ford government should have made the request for federal help weeks ago.

"Everybody knew from the modeling projections that things were likely going to get pretty tight in hospitals and there was no preparation," she said. "What the heck took so long to get into gear and actually make this request?"

Horwath said she's concerned the province may not have a plan to staff the units as soon as they arrive.

"We know that a lot of frontline health-care workers are burnt out, they're exhausted," she said. "Some are actually sick and there's some that are in quarantine. So, I think it's pretty much an unknown as to, once we get the units here, how do we set them up?"

The province's hospitals have been struggling with capacity challenges for weeks because of surging COVID-19 cases.

The situation has become so dire that patients requiring treatment in intensive care units in hot-spot regions are being transferred to hospitals hours away to receive care.

The province has said a new hospital set to open in Vaughan, Ont., will be used to help relieve the capacity crunch once it opens on Feb. 7.

The head of the Ontario Hospital Association said in a statement Friday that while it appears virus spread is slowing, the province's hospitals continue to struggle with capacity issues.

CEO Anthony Dale said over the last few days the number of patients in Ontario hospital intensive care units have decreased slightly from an all-time high of 420 earlier this month.

The province reported 383 patients were in its ICUs on Friday.

But Dale warned that 193 patient transfers out the worst-hit regions were planned this week, more than double the rate of transfers between November and January

"The rate of transmission appears to be decelerating, but we cannot declare victory," he said in a statement. "We must remain extremely cautious and keep up the fight against community spread to keep up our progress and prevent a third wave, especially when we see the new variant's impacts in the United Kingdom.”

Dr. Barbara Yaffe, the province's associate medical officer of health, said Thursday that the provincial case rate has started to decline for the first time since November – sitting now at 145.4 cases per 100,000 people – although that figure is still high.

“We’re seeing some improvement,” Yaffe said. “But we do need to see more data to determine if those decreasing rates are a real trend.”

On Friday, Ontario reported 2,662 new cases of COVID-19 and 87 more deaths related to the virus.

- with files from Mia Rabson.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 22, 2021.

Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press