WINDSOR, ONT. -- As the community grapples with a rising number of COVID-19 cases and deaths related to the virus, Windsor Regional Hospital officials are planning for the worst-case scenario.

That worst case, as indicated by Dr. Wajid Ahmed of the Windsor Essex County Health Unit during Friday’s media briefing, could see 4,200 Windsor-Essex County residents dying related to COVID-19.

“We’re putting this all into place, planning for the worst, praying for the best and being ready for anything in between,” says Windsor Regional Hospital CEO David Musyj. “That’s a worst-case scenario, that’s a significant number. What you’re planning for is six months of deaths to occur in a six-week period.”

The first step was setting up a field hospital, which was officially secured Thursday at St. Clair College’s SportsPlex in south Windsor. Army Maj. Andy Stewart assisted in the site search and logistics associated with getting the SportsPlex ready to take patients. It will be functional by next week, according to Musyj.St. Clair Sportsplex

The hospital has also freed up about 250 beds between both campuses to handle an expected influx of patients over the coming weeks and months.

Patients who are in recovery mode but still require hospital care will likely be triaged to the field hospital, which will feature 100 additional beds and the capacity for 200 more, should the need arise.

“We will have patients there that are recovering from COVID-19 and are at the point where they need maybe oxygen support, are in recovery phase but have nowhere to go,” says Musyj. “Meaning they can’t go home, can’t go to a long-term care residence and as a result, we need a place or them to continue to get care but outside of the hospital setting.”

Musyj echoes statement from public health officials as to the severity of COVID-19 and the need to stay home and flatten the curve.

“We’re just at the start of this. That is, we’re not into any type of surge yet, so it’s just starting,” Musyj says. “We have to plan that this is going to go on for a bunch of weeks, if not months.”

Because of the increase of cases and expected related mortalities, the hospital has also had to consider where to put the deceased as the hospital only has morgue capacity for 28 bodies.

“If those (projected deaths) come through, we’d be very strained to accommodate that,” says Karen Riddell, the vice president of critical care at Windsor Regional Hospital. “So we’ve have to look at temporary morgues for our hospital so we’re able to house those patients that unfortunately will pass away related to COVID-19.”

The first measure involved a chilled truck with the capacity for 36 bodies. The hospital is also in conversations with the city to convert arenas into temporary morgues.

Riddell says the hospital is ready to secure an arena, which will have chilling capability to preserve the deceased until funeral homes can process them.

“We hope we don’t need it, but we do need to be ready in the event we are overwhelmed with cases over the next couple of weeks,” Riddell says. “We’re working very closely with the city in identifying potential locations for that so that if we do have to do that, that well be ready to do that.”

Each ice pad has the capacity for 200 bodies and officials are confident there is enough space within the facilities in our region. The hospital is not yet disclosing which arenas are being considered, but will make the information publicly available through a release sometime next week.

“The use of that community facility will be very respectful of neighbours that might be around if it’s in a residential area,” Riddell says. “We would ensure that we have a communication plan for the community so we’d be able to answer any questions they might have or concerns.”

Riddell admits cultural norms around funerals and visitation will be interrupted during the health crisis.

“What we’re trying to do is be very aware of that and consider what that looks like from a bereavement and grieving perspective after death and making sure that after selecting facilities they are respecting both the families and deceased providing opportunities for viewing and grieving because we know there might be delays in having funeral services,” she says.

The hospital is also working in collaboration with health care facilities across Ontario to ensure excess capacity to handle surges, or “hot spots” in other parts of the province.

Musyj adds everything being put into action right now has been practiced through emergency drills and is being done to prepare for the worst case scenario, but hopes it never gets to that.

“It’s surreal on a good day, to be doing that, but it’s here,” Musyj says. “This is what we’ve unfortunately prepared for and now we’re implementing it.”