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UPDATE: Vaughan hospital to become Ontario's first COVID-19 pandemic hospital

Premier Doug Ford announces Cortellucci Vaughan Hospital will help support the province's pandemic response starting Feb. 7
Jan. 19, 2021
Kim Zarzour

Vaughan’s new hospital will be temporarily repurposed to help take the load off other hospitals during the pandemic -- the first hospital in the province to be dedicated to COVID-19.

Premier Doug Ford made the announcement at Mackenzie Health’s Cortellucci Vaughan Hospital Jan. 18.

"When we’re in the fight of our lives, this incredible state-of-the-art hospital, it’s like reinforcements coming over the hill," Ford said. "This will make a massive, massive difference."

The Vaughan hospital, which Ford says is the first new hospital to be built in the province in more than 30 years, was expected to open as a state-of-the-art "smart hospital" early this year.

Instead, it will be dedicated to treating COVID-19 patients, with at least 185 dedicated COVID-19 beds, starting Feb. 7.

More beds are likely to be added in stages, with neonatal intensive care and mental health units possibly repurposed to meet the needs across the system.

The province faces a serious capacity challenge with ICU occupancy expected to be as high as 1,000 beds by early February, and patients being transferred from Toronto to Kingston and Niagara, Health Minister Christine Elliott said.

"This is not something that can continue for a long period of time," she said.

The province announced $125 million in funding to add more than 500 critical care and high-intensity medicine beds to hospitals in COVID-19 hot spots in Toronto, Windsor, Durham, Kingston and Ottawa.

The hospitals will be selected based on their physical capacity to add beds and availability of health-care workers.

As part of this news, Cortellucci Vaughan Hospital will be temporarily transitioned into a system-wide resource with 35 critical care beds and 150 for general medicine to support noncritical patients from other hospitals.

Operations at Mackenzie Richmond Hill Hospital will continue while the Vaughan site temporarily focuses on supporting the province’s short-term pandemic response, Ford said.

The emergency department at Mackenzie Richmond Hill Hospital will remain open to serve the community.

The emergency department at Cortellucci Vaughan -- which has the ability to create 25 more COVID-19 spaces -- will not open until the system has stabilized, Altaf Stationwala, Mackenzie Health’s president and CEO, said.

"We continue to look for staffing; we continue to recruit," he said. "I’ve never in my entire career as a health care leader seen a system come together as it has in the last number of months."

Mackenzie Health has sent almost 70 patients to other hospitals that have room -- primarily Royal Victoria in Barrie, but as far away as Burlington, Stationwala said.

Focusing Cortellucci Vaughan on COVID care will reduce the need for patients and families to be displaced so far from their homes, he said.

"They're still going to have to move but they're going to move to an amazing facility that's accessible on Highway 400 to three regions: Peel, York and Toronto."

Elliott said the situation is changing quickly and requires all hands on deck.

"There’s a lot of shifting and movement that needs to happen as well as dealing with all of the human resources, which is another one of our biggest impediments, so that’s why we’re looking at redeploying trained staff from other hospitals and non-COVID related areas into the hot spots."

"This is a different opening than we committed to our staff, physicians and community," Stationwala said. "We know it’s the right thing to do for our community and our followers."

Located close to York Region’s border with Peel, at Jane Street and Major Mackenzie Drive, the hospital is centred in one of the country's worst-hit areas for the coronavirus.

Peel Region has long been Canada's hot spot, and York Region has been second worst in terms of per capita case counts.

Parts of the region -- Vaughan in particular -- have exceeded Peel's numbers, according to Dr. Karim Kurji, the region's medical officer of health.

For that reason, and because the vast majority of rooms at the Vaughan hospital are individual rooms, the location makes sense for some -- but not everyone is on board.

Health care workers who were employed by Mackenzie Health’s hospital in Richmond Hill during the SARS pandemic say they remain traumatized by that experience.

Then known as York Central, the hospital was one of the global epicentres for the 2003 pandemic.

"No one wants to go (to the Vaughan hospital)," said one nurse, who asked not to be named. "I don’t ever want to go through anything like that again. I will quit first. I just can’t do it."

Others question whether the region can afford to lose a much-anticipated health care facility in an area that has been underserved for years.

"Mackenzie Health is already Ontario's most overcrowded hospital," Richmond Hill resident and lawyer Jason Cherniak said. "We need that new emergency department in Vaughan and I find it hard to believe that the best option for the province is to keep it closed. Is this the best solution, or the easiest?"

But Stationwala and Vaughan Mayor Maurizio Bevilaqua stressed this is a necessary but temporary measure.

Once COVID-19 capacity pressures have stabilized, the new hospital will provide care and services to patients from across western York Region as originally planned.

"After this temporary crisis is over, we will provide all the services that were promised to the people of Vaughan and beyond," Bevilaqua said.

"We have to pool our resource together. Whatever you have, you have to put on the table. At the end of the day, as Ontarians, we share the risks and benefits of our common citizenship and we need to be there for each other."