LONDON, ONT. -- Work has begun to transform the Western Fair District Agriplex into a temporary off-site hospital as London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC) continues to prepare for a potential influx of patients requiring care for COVID-19.

Dr. Ian Ball, a physician at LHSC, says the off-site hospital is an extension of LHSC and is being prepared for readiness, but it will activate only if and when the need arises.

“We put the players on the field and then see what COVID-19 does. We need to be ready to respond.”

Phase one of production includes a 144-bed unit with the ability to expand the facility to 500 beds. The facility is not meant for those in critical care, Ball says.

“Its role would be to remove the healthiest of its ward patients from LHSC so that the Intensive Care Units could move beyond the Intensive Care Unit walls, so that you could have intensive care patients on ventilators in non-traditional parts of the hospital."

Neil Johnson, LHSC president and CEO, says the facility is not open to the public and will not be treated as an emergency centre, meaning the facility has no ventilators and won't be seeking ventilators anytime soon.

“We will have portable oxygen, intravenous, portable x-ray machine, some of the basic stuff we have to do…fluids, medications…the basics,” says Johnson.

But what happens if a patient arrives healthy and their condition gets worse?

“Patients who require ventilators are so sick they’re very fragile and you want to have all the hospital supports around them. Although this is a hospital it is not equipped as Victoria Hospital or University Hospital,” says Ball.

Ball adds that the staff will be organized as a team with likely one physician, two nurses and personal support workers. One team would care for roughly 16 patients.

Johnson says they are still working out the logistics, “Either retired staff or people from the region, physicians, we have had a lot of response we have had lots of people offering their services.”

Phase one cost approximately $750,000 to implement. There is room in the Agriplex to fit two more pods if necessary, that’s a potential of 500 beds.

Johnson says the facility has a zero visitation policy and he is confident in the ability to move patients back and forth if necessary.

"We’re pretty confident that we will be able to move patients back and forth as we need to. We have a good relationship with our patient transport and EMS would be able to help us out with that.”

Johnson says the facility, if the light turns on, will have up to 10 days of personal protective equipment (PPE).

“Our supplies of a variety of PPE are over 10 days now, many of them are over two to three weeks, but it’s going to be a continuous struggle.”

The work is being undertaken in partnership with the Western Fair District and the City of London and is part or the Southwestern Ontario region's pandemic response plan.