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The Cortellucci Vaughan Hospital, which was scheduled to open as a second site in the Mackenzie Health network on Feb. 7, was to be the first new hospital – not replacing an old one – built in Ontario in three decades.Handout

A dedicated pandemic hospital will be opening just north of Toronto in a matter of weeks, as health care centres in the region struggle to cope with surging COVID-19 infections.

In what appears to be the first of its kind in Canada, the Cortellucci Vaughan Hospital will be devoted to treating COVID-19 patients when it opens its doors in early February. It will also be used to manage overflow from other hospitals, taking in uninfected patients to free up beds for COVID-19 cases.

The facility, which was scheduled to open as a second site in the Mackenzie Health network on Feb. 7, was to be the first new hospital – not replacing an old one – built in Ontario in three decades. But with COVID-19′s second wave battering the Greater Toronto Area, pushing capacity to the point where doctors have been openly warning that they are on the brink of having to triage sick patients, the province approached Mackenzie’s leadership team about using the site solely for pandemic response.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford confirmed Monday that the facility will open on Feb. 7.

An official with knowledge of the province’s plans said that the area will continue to be served by the Mackenzie Richmond Hill Hospital. For the initial launch, Cortellucci Vaughan Hospital will be staffed by existing Mackenzie health care workers and then additional personnel will be hired as capacity ramps up, the official said. The Globe and Mail is not identifying them because they are not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

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The Ontario government declared a state of emergency last week as it released new modelling projections that showed a new, more infectious variant of the virus could mean the province may see as many as 40,000 new infections a day in February. On Sunday, the province recorded 3,422 new infections, with 1,570 people hospitalized and nearly 400 in ICU.

In the early weeks of the outbreak in Wuhan, China – where the novel coronavirus was first reported in early 2020 – two dedicated COVID-19 hospitals were built. Deploying that strategy in Canada has been debated by experts, although it does not appear any jurisdiction in the country has actually done it.

During the first wave of the pandemic in Canada, Windsor Regional Hospital opened a field hospital to treat COVID-19 patients and Jewish General Hospital in Montreal was designated as a site to deal with infections in the city, although it never stopped other treatments. For the most part, hospitals have either set aside a designated COVID-19 area or found ways to isolate infected patients in different departments.

Dr. Susy Hota, the medical director of infection prevention and control at Toronto’s University Health Network, said there are pros and cons to a dedicated hospital.

“It can have some benefits. You can concentrate training. You can concentrate resources to heighten their infection-control procedures. You’re separating positive patients from others so you can reduce the risk of transmission,” she said. “The things that would be challenging in our current environment is really staffing and logistics.”

Dr. Hota, who was not aware of the plans for Cortellucci Vaughan and is speaking generally, said she has questions about how the hospital will operate within the current system. Which patients go and how do they get there?

“Would EMS be bringing people to this one facility if they’re a highly suspicious case? Which is not the easiest thing to determine all the time,” she said. “And I worry about the distance. If someone is in downtown Toronto and has to be transferred, a patient can deteriorate rapidly.”

By far her biggest question mark is staffing, as there are a limited number of trained health workers, nurses and doctors already employed in the province.

“[Another] possibility is a decanting strategy, to help find another destination for the overflow. These are the patients who are already admitted to hospitals,” she said.

(Already, Toronto-area hospitals are having to transfer COVID-19 patients out of the city because there aren’t enough beds.)

Dr. Hota warned that no matter what, existing hospitals are going to be dealing with COVID-19 cases because it’s not always obvious a person is infected when they arrive.

Kevin Katz, who runs infection prevention and control at North York General Hospital, had also not heard of the province’s plans with the Vaughan site, but welcomed news of a new facility.

“The system is stretched and any additional inpatient or ICU capacity is positive. It appears the needs will grow significantly over the coming weeks,” he said. “I’m less concerned about the dedicated COVID aspect and more focused on overall added system capacity.”

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