The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) will deploy up to three medical teams and nine critical care nurses to Ontario to support hospitals overwhelmed by a surge of COVID-19 patients and running desperately short of qualified medical staff, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Tuesday.
The announcement comes following a plea for help by Ontario’s Solicitor General Sylvia Jones, who formally asked for specialized nurses to assist in intensive care, as well as other medical personnel.
Federal officials said Ottawa is prepared to deploy federal health resources, provide support from the military, and fund the redeployment of the Canadian Red Cross (CRC) to “augment or relieve staff within medical care facilities.”
“We are working with our provincial partners on next steps, and Armed Forces members will be mobilized over the coming days,” Trudeau said during a press conference in Ottawa.
“Let’s be clear: sending women and men in uniform to help in Ontario is a serious step. We are doing this because the situation requires it.”
The so-called multi-purpose medical assistance teams will be composed of nursing officers and medical technicians as well as additional CAF members for general duty support as applicable, according to a statement by the Public Safety Department.
Federal officials said that the teams would be “rotated in and out of the province rather than deployed simultaneously to ensure that CAF support is sustainable.”
In addition, the military will be providing airlift of medical personnel from Newfoundland and Labrador and possibly other jurisdictions, said a joint statement by federal cabinet ministers.
A relief flight with medical personnel from Newfoundland was expected to arrive in Toronto on Tuesday, Trudeau said.
The Atlantic province is already organizing a second team of healthcare workers, who will rotate in to help, the prime minister said.
“Our government is covering the costs of deploying these teams and we’re ready to do the same for any other province or territory that can also step-in with support,” Trudeau said.
Help for Nova Scotia and Alberta coming too
Unfortunately, Ontario is far from the only place dealing with a spike in cases, he added.
“Across Nova Scotia, and especially in the Halifax region, numbers have risen quickly and the province requested help. So there too, we’re sending support,” Trudeau said.
The federal goverment is deploying 60 CAF members to testing centres in Nova Scotia to help stop the spread of the virus in the Atlantic coast province, the prime minister said.
The federal government also stands ready to help the Western province of Alberta, he added.
Over the weekend, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo – which includes Fort McMurray, the heartland of Canada’s oilsands industry in northern Alberta – declared a state of emergency, Trudeau said.
Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu talked to Wood Buffalo Mayor Don Scott about the outbreak in the region, and the situation on the ground, he said.
“Our government has reached out to Alberta on what support they may need to keep people safe and get the situation under control,” Trudeau said.
Quebec and Ontario called on the Canadian military at the beginning of the pandemic last year to help stabilize the situation in long-term care facilities in both provinces that were buckling under the strain of the pandemic.
Military nurses, medical technicians and ordinary soldiers spent months caring for elderly patients in 54 nursing homes in both provinces during the first wave and helped to expose horrific conditions in some of the facilities.
Fifty-five members of the military contracted COVID-19 while serving in those centres, according to testimony heard by a parliamentary committee last fall. All of the soldiers recovered and none required hospitalization.
The military also has been heavily involved in the planning and coordination of vaccine distribution, with senior officers and staff seconded to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, who had been the chief of staff at the military’s operations command, was named vice president of logistics and operations at the health agency and has worked alongside a team of military logisticians who have experience with moving major medical resources around the world.
The Canadian military was also called in to provide assistance to several remote First Nations communities in Manitoba and northern Ontario that were coping with severe outbreaks of COVID-19 this winter and early spring.
With files from Murray Brewster of CBC News