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Construction workers build the temporary Pandemic Response Unit at Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington, Ont., on March 31, 2020.

Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

Canada’s three largest provinces have begun setting up temporary makeshift hospitals to expand their number of available beds in anticipation of an influx of patients with COVID-19.

Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington, west of Toronto, is building a temporary pandemic unit to accommodate patients who need treatment for COVID-19. The modular structure will contain 93 beds, more than doubling the 71 it currently has set aside for treating patients with the disease. A spokeswoman said the community hospital has four patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 and one suspected case.

It’s the first hospital in Ontario to announce that it is expanding capacity to meet the heightened care needs of the community.

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The latest on the coronavirus: Toronto cancels all public events through June 30; Quebec warns of equipment shortages

Three provinces rolled out plans this week to transform other sites into makeshift hospitals. In British Columbia, Vancouver’s waterfront Convention Centre will be equipped to house 270 patients. In Quebec, the government has earmarked 4,000 hotel rooms that could be pressed into service under its public health emergency laws. And in Ontario, the government is giving hospitals the go-ahead to temporarily lease space in other buildings, including hotels and retirement homes.

The number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise across the country. By Tuesday evening, 8,591 Canadians had been infected with the disease and 101 had died. British Columbia alone reported five more deaths due to the coronavirus, the most in a 24-hour period.

A 93-bed temporary pandemic response unit is being assembled at the Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington, Ontario. The unit should be ready for COVID-19 patients in about two weeks. The Globe and Mail

Workers from BLT Construction arrived in Burlington on Tuesday to begin assembling the temporary building on Joseph Brant’s hospital grounds. It will be connected to the hospital’s south tower and should be ready for use in two weeks, Mark Watts, president and founder of the company, said.

“We are doing everything we can to care for the people of Burlington to prepare for these unprecedented times,” Eric Vandewall, the hospital’s chief executive officer, said in a news release on Monday.

Mr. Watts said he is also in talks with several other hospitals in Ontario looking at following Joseph Brant’s lead. He is not authorized to identify them.

The Ontario Ministry of Health gave hospitals the option on Tuesday of signing temporary leases to house COVID-19 or general patients in retirement homes, hotels and other buildings. The ministry said it is waiving the normal submission rules, “with a view to providing hospitals with the necessary flexibility to meet rapidly evolving service demands.”

Quebec has identified an additional 1,500 beds that can be added outside hospitals, in other health care institutions and the recently decommissioned Hôtel-Dieu hospital. That hospital was already partly reopened to create a diagnostic clinic for new cases.

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The local health authority in Laval, a suburb north of Montreal, has rented an entire Quality Inn to house up to 133 palliative care patients from the Cité-de-la-Santé hospital to make room for incoming COVID-19 patients.

“In the coming days you will be hearing about other regions working with hotels near their institutions,” Quebec Health Minister Danielle McCann said on Tuesday.

In British Columbia, Health Minister Adrian Dix announced on Monday that two temporary hospitals – one in the Vancouver Convention Centre and another in a new tower in New Westminster’s Royal Columbian Hospital with 80 beds – will help ease the burden for major hospitals treating the most critically ill patients with COVID-19.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked Tuesday about two First Nations in Manitoba that have requested Ottawa’s help to set up military hospitals in remote communities with limited access to health care.

The Canadian Armed Forces will determine where help may be required, Mr. Trudeau said. “Men and women in the military are always ready to serve and help in a range of ways,” he said.

Hospitals across Canada have already freed up beds at existing sites by postponing non-emergency surgeries and discharging many patients who were waiting for more appropriate services in a different setting, such as in long-term care homes or rehabilitation centres. In Quebec, for example, 7,000 of its 18,000 hospital beds are available for COVID-19 patients after all but essential services were postponed.

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BLT Construction did an “aggressive” e-mail campaign to federal, provincial and municipal governments two weeks ago, saying it could help create more space for hospital beds, Mr. Watts said. The concern, he said, is that the United States is snapping up the structures as it strains to accommodate the volume of patients at its medical centres.

Unlike tents that have popped up in field hospitals in New York City and elsewhere, the semi-permanent structures BLT assembles are typically used for disaster-recovery operations and can withstand winter weather conditions and hurricane-force winds.

“It’s just a matter of time before the inventory is going to dry up,” Mr. Watts said. “We’re two weeks behind where we need to be.”

Ontario has fewer hospital beds per capita than any other province, with 1.4 acute care beds for every 1,000 people. Occupancy rates are hovering around an average of 80 per cent in the province, an all-time low, Anthony Dale, president of the Ontario Hospital Association, said.

But as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to mount, he said, the reprieve for hospitals is temporary. “This is the calm before the storm."

With reports from Les Perreaux and Kristy Kirkup

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Volunteer physicians and other professionals have set-up an emergency field hospital in New York City's Central Park to help with the influx of patients diagnosed with the new coronavirus. The Associated Press

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