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Workers erect a field hospital in the parking lot of Sunnybrook Hospital, in Toronto, on March 17, 2021.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Ottawa allocated $300-million at the beginning of the pandemic for the construction of 15 mobile hospitals, but only four 100-bed units have been completed and they are sitting in storage despite the strain on hospitals caused by Omicron across the country.

The federal government gave a sole-sourced contract of up to $150-million to a joint venture between SNC-Lavalin and Pacific Architects and Engineers (SNC-PAE) in April, 2020, to build five mobile respiratory-care hospitals that can be set up in existing structures such as conference centres and indoor skating arenas.

A similar multimillion-dollar contract went to Weatherhaven Global Resources Ltd. for 10 stand-alone field hospitals that can be deployed either in urban or remote areas.

So far, Weatherhaven has delivered three units and none of them are currently in use, according to the office of federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos.

Two of those units were deployed early last year for several months at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and Hamilton Health Sciences hospital network. In October of last year, an oxygen concentrator from one of Weatherhaven’s units was shipped to the Northwest Territories to handle an influx of COVID-19 patients in intensive care.

Since the contracts were awarded, SNC-PAE has received $71-million in payment from the federal government and delivered one mobile hospital unit, which is also sitting in a warehouse in Ottawa and has never been deployed. The money has also been spent on specialized medical equipment for use by the government, according to SNC-Lavalin.

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None of the provinces have yet asked for either of the mobile hospitals during the current Omicron wave. The SNC-PAE mobile respiratory care unit can handle 100 patients in five wards, including 20 intensive-care-unit beds with oxygen respirators. Weatherhaven’s portable tent hospitals also handle 100 beds and include ventilators.

A senior federal official said the the Health department assumes the provinces have not requested the mobile pandemic hospitals because they don’t have enough nurses or doctors to staff them. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the official because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Lorne Wiesenfeld, an emergency doctor at the Ottawa Hospital and vice-dean of graduate medical education at the University of Ottawa, acknowledged the shortage of health care workers. Many are off sick or are quarantined because of contact with a sick family member or friend, he said.

However, he said there is definite need for the federal mobile units.

“The hospitals are very congested with many patients who are in with COVID,” Dr. Wiesenfeld said. ”This can create a situation where there is not enough hospital beds. It’s complicated as well because many wards have outbreaks of COVID so no new non-COVID patients can brought up to that ward.”

Katharine Smart, president of the Canadian Medical Association, said she can understand why the provinces haven’t asked for the federal units given burnout, attrition and COVID-19 infections of nurses, doctors and other staff.

“Of course it would nice to have more physical space but that doesn’t help when you don’t have the human health resources to staff it,” she said. “The crisis in front of us is we need people to staff more space.”

Dr. Smart said spending $300-million on mobile hospitals isn’t a waste of money and added that the pandemic should raise larger issues of government funding to address the long-term shortage of overall health care workers.

“We have to plan for worst-case scenarios,” Dr. Smart said. “But what we learned from this pandemic … is we have to understand that there is no health care without health care professionals and we need to see investments there.”

SNC-Lavalin said it is fulfilling the contract and has no control over what the provinces do.

“The federal government wanted to be prepared if provinces needed extra capacity,” said Harold Fortin, senior director of communications at SNC-Lavalin. “Obviously, health care is a provincial jurisdiction and our understanding is that deployment should be initiated by the government of Canada and/or when provinces and territories will ask for support.”

The Globe reached out to the Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta governments to ask why they are not taking greater advantage of the mobile hospitals. All but Quebec responded and while none expressed a direct interest in the mobile units, all said they will act to get the resources they need when available.

Jason Maloney, a spokesman for the Alberta government, said the province has been able to increase hospital capacity to handle the surge in COVID-19 patients.

In testimony before the House of Commons health committee in June, Bill Matthews, then-federal deputy minister at Public Services and Procurement, said the government decided to spend $300-million on field units to make sure the country was prepared to handle waves of COVID-19 cases.

“This was done at a time when you were seeing things like emergency rooms overrun, with lack of space being an issue,” he said. “You saw the cruise ship in New York Harbor, and we did notice that other countries were taking steps to put in place plans for mobile hospital units.”

Mr. Matthews said Ottawa sole-sourced the contracts to meet a potentially urgent need, saying that SNC and PAE have experience providing field hospitals for the Canadian military in Afghanistan and for the U.S. military.

The Manitoba government in an e-mailed statement said it outlines its requirements in conversation with the federal government but does not make specific requests. Manitoba said it’s up to Ottawa to assess resources at its disposal and deploy as it sees fit.

The Ontario government said it has accelerated efforts to add hospital beds and build up the province’s health care work force.

Alexandra Hilkene, press secretary for Health Minister Christine Elliott, said Ontario “did not hesitate to ask the federal government for assistance” in the spring of 2021 to bring mobile health units online to provide increased capacity to the health system.

“We will continue to work with our hospital partners to ensure they have the support they need and will not hesitate to take further action as needed,” she said.

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