A €1m, 68-bed field hospital, has been opened at the University of Limerick, to cater for non-Covid-19 patients, including those who may have had recovered from the virus, as part of measures to free up acute hospital bed capacity in the mid west region.
The Interim Care Facility (ICF), which can scale up to 84 beds, was erected by members of the Defence Forces over the past two weeks, and is located at the UL Sports Arena.
It is expected the first 25-30 patients will be accommodated this week.
Professor Paul Burke, Chief Academic Officer at UL Hospitals Group and Vice Dean of Health Sciences at UL, led the project.
Prof Burke said while he was confident hospitals in the region could cope with a surge in Covid-19 cases, the virus is going to remain “a threat” for some time to come.
Prior to the pandemic, UHL was consistently the most overcrowded hospital in the country. It is again today, with 39 patients on trolleys.
The hospital is monitoring this to make sure patients on trolleys are in rooms on their own and not on corridors as part of measures to prevent the virus spreading within the hospital.
Seen as a ‘stepdown facility’, the ICF will cater for patients who are well enough to leave hospitals in the region, but who may need further rehabilitation or are waiting on access to long term care.
Patients will not be allowed visitors. However this policy may change in line with national guidelines around battling the spread of COVID-19.
It is a fully staffed and fully equipped Model One hospital facility, and is open to accepting patients from today.
The ICF is laid out in partitioned wards, and fitted out with a typical ward support accommodation such as clean and dirty utilities, pharmacy, pantry, staff change, clinical treatment areas, two recreation areas, and four enclosed rooms.
It is expected to be in place until at least September with an option to extend until November.
'Surge' of cases of respiratory illness, including Covid-19, this winter
Colette Cowan, head of the UL Hospitals Group, said she expects there will be a “surge” of cases of Covid-19, flu and respiratory related illnesses at UHL over winter, which would put increased pressures on the hospital.
Ms Cowan appealed to the public to stay away from the Limerick ED unless it was an absolute emergency.
“I think there will be a surge but it will probably be a mixture of Covid-19 and flu...I would have concern about winter definitely, that a lot of patients will come into hospital with respiratory illness,” Ms Cowan said.
Ms Cowan said “it remains to be seen” how the hospital will cope with the expected surge.
The hospital has had to stream patients away from the ED which is now operating as a “Covid-unit”, as part of measures aimed at stopping the spread of the virus.
People with symptoms are “kept in the emergency department” and those not showing symptoms and attending for other specific reasons, are being “streamed out of the ED”, as a measures to contain the virus and prevent it from spreading from trolley to trolley.
“It is ok if (the patients) are in a room on their own, on a trolley, but, it is not ok if they are on a corridor, so we are monitoring that very carefully,” Ms Cowan said.
A population catchment of approximately 400,000 across Limerick, Clare, Tipperary and parts of north Cork attend at UHL, as it has the only 24-hour ED in the surrounding region.
At the height of the pre-Covid hospital trolley crisis, 92 patients were being cared for on trolleys at UHL.
On March 25, as the virus spread, there were no patients on trolleys.
Today there were 39 patients on trolleys, the highest in the country, according to figures published by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation.
Extra bed capacity is however, “coming on stream”, including a 14 single-bed block, due in July; a 24 single-bed block to follow in August; as well as a 60-single bed block expected to open in October.
“Will we have a busy winter - yes we will. The public (have done) what they were asked, you could see our trolley numbers dropped when Covid-19 hit, and what we have to do is urge the public again if they have symptoms that they stay at home and isolate and ring their GP,” advised Ms Cowan.
“The ED is not the place to come initially. (But) If you’re very sick, of course you should come into the ED.”
The Group is still short of an additional 150 beds, she said.
A 96-bed block has been designed but is still awaiting funding before it can go to planning stage.
Ms Cowan said:
The vaccine will come, but that will take time. So we know as a health sector, that it will be a two-year management of this virus...It's not going away.
Additional morgue resources were put in place at UHL, but these have not being used either, Ms Cowan said.
She maintained: “If a surge comes, we will be ready for it”.
However, reiterating her earlier concerns, she advised that despite the Government's loosening of restrictions on people’s movements, Covid-19 remained “a dangerous virus” “affecting many people”.
“You don't have to have (underlying) illnesses to get Covid, so people (still) need to be very, very careful,” she warned.