Manitoulin Island COVID-19 field hospital progressing steadily

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LITTLE CURRENT – Manitoulin Island’s field hospital and community care centres continue to advance closer to completion in anticipation of a possible surge in cases on Manitoulin Island, and the people leading those efforts say they are confident in their ability to have the facilities ready if and when the need arises.

“We’ve got surge capacity in the hospital above our normal operating beds, so we have a bit of a runway. The plan is now to continue to work away to get to a state of readiness such that we’re 48 hours away from being operational,” said Tim Vine, chief financial officer and vice-president of corporate support services at Manitoulin Health Centre (MHC).

MHC is overseeing a new field hospital site at the Little Current-Howland Recreation Centre which is being set up to reach a 48-hour readiness target. Once it reaches that stage, it will be available to be up and running within two days should the need arise if the hospital’s main beds fill up.

Mr. Vine explained that this is built into MHC’s surge plan. He estimated that at the current moment the field hospital is about five days away from opening if the need suddenly arose. 

If the field hospital has not yet reached the two-day readiness target by the time the first severe COVID-19 patient has to be hospitalized, the work on the facility will be accelerated in anticipation of more cases.

“Both Paula (Fields, chief nursing officer and vice-president of clinical services) and I are confident that we’ll have time to get the field hospital up and running, if we need it, after we get our first admitted case of COVID-19,” said Mr. Vine. “We’re doing all of this with our own human resources. I’m not pushing our facilities folks too much because I want to make sure they’re ready when we really need them.”

That touches upon a significant point—MHC has not received any funding from the Ontario Ministry of Health for its field hospital and is funding the centre from its own accounts. 

As both Mr. Vine and field hospital clinical administrator Dr. Mike Bedard indicated, details of the funding for field hospitals remains largely unknown. However, the indication from the province is that funding will only be provided if and when a surge in cases puts them into use.

In rural environments with limited resources, field hospitals must be ready to operate before their need is imminent in order to give the best possible care to patients. Mr. Vine said he was unsure of whether or not the ministry would provide retroactive funding for the construction costs of the site, whether or not it ends up seeing use.

“We can’t afford to wait for a surge,” said Mr. Vine, adding that MHC has submitted its estimated costs of setup and operations to Ontario Health North. “It was really important for MHC to go ahead in absence of the funding to be prepared for the community. Me personally, I didn’t want to be in a spot where I had an extra $100,000 in our bank account if we had to put people’s lives at risk.”

He added that several community members have offered support and donations and that the hospital is grateful for their aid. Surplus funds from the successful ventilator campaign were slated to be directed to MHC’s efforts to prepare for COVID-19.

Dr. Bedard, the physician lead at the field hospital, said he was pleased with how the Island has fared so far in the ongoing first wave of the virus. As of press time Monday, there have been four reported COVID-19 cases on Manitoulin—two who have since recovered, one which was later retested to be negative and one active case.

“The place has liquid oxygen cylinders and refilling, chairs, dressers, side tables and beds, partition walls for the patients, med carts and over and above. I’ll never criticize administration staff any more because I suck at that and I see how much they’ve had to put into this,” said Dr. Bedard.

Temporary walls have been set up for PPE doffing and work is beginning on the donning area.

The hospital has bi-weekly COVID-19 planning committee meetings with several subcommittees also working in the background. MHC continues to monitor epidemiologic projections from the Ministry of Health and follow guidance from Ontario Health North (one of the new organizations created by the Ford government to eventually replace local health integration networks).

On the community side of the care model, work is ongoing to prepare recovery centres for less-urgent COVID-19 cases that are not yet ready to return home. A meeting took place last Friday with the leaders of these facilities and health partners to figure out the next steps in their models.

There are presently two sites in development for this purpose, one in Manitowaning and another in M’Chigeeng. 

Derek Debassige is part of the committee of communities working toward a solution for community-based supportive care centres, intended as a step-down from the field hospital into sites that are community-run.

However, the proposed site at the M’Chigeeng Community Complex was recently deemed to be unfeasible for this purpose due to the ventilation system being shared with multiple private businesses in the building.

M’Chigeeng continues to explore alternative options and Mr. Debassige said the concept of each community having its own supportive care centre may end up being unfeasible. In this case, there is hope that a centralized supportive care centre could be explored as an alternative.

The Expositor will explore the state of Manitoulin’s supportive care centres in next week’s edition.