A look inside the Saskatchewan Health Authority’s setup in the main arena at USask’s Merlis Belsher Place. (Saskatchewan Health Authority)

USask’s Merlis Belsher Place to house mass immunization clinic

The University of Saskatchewan (USask) campus will soon become a major provincial pandemic hub for COVID-19 vaccination.

The Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) is establishing a new mass immunization clinic in USask’s state-of-the-art Merlis Belsher Place facility. The immunization clinic will operate by appointment only for Phase One priority populations, with the facility remaining closed to the general public at this time. As vaccine supply increases over the coming months and mass immunization clinics begin, the SHA hopes to ramp up to immunizing as many as 6,000 individuals per day in Saskatoon, seven days a week, including up to 1,400 per day at the Merlis Belsher Place site.

USask officials have extended the agreement with the SHA for use of the 120,000-square foot facility through to the end of Julyand longer if necessaryin order to serve the needs of the health-care system and the community.

“When we are talking about a time of need, I think of our goal to be the university the world needs, and this is great example of that,” said Wade Epp, USask’s associate vice-president of services. “Continuing to make that facility available to help the community, helps all of us. By having the space and the infrastructure that is in thereincluding the Ron and Jane Graham Sport Science and Health Centrewe are able to respond in this time of need. This is something that the university can do to help our community recover from this pandemic.”

The Merlis Belsher Place facility—featuring two full-sized ice surfaces and two full-sized basketball courts—was originally set up by SHA to serve as an emergency field hospital if required, potentially housing up to 250 COVID-19 patients. With infrastructure already in placeincluding advanced ventilation systems and room dividersthe multipurpose complex is well-suited to serve as a mass immunization clinic and could quickly revert to an emergency field hospital, if necessary.

“The university has been and continues to be an excellent partner as we have needed the space Merlis Belsher Place affords throughout the pandemic,” said Jennifer Cushon, Immunization Section Chief (Saskatoon) and Director, Primary Health Care (Saskatoon). “As vaccine supply continues to improve, we are building the infrastructure needed to immunize people as quickly as possible, beginning with our 70 and older population and phase one health-care workers. Merlis Belsher Place will be a key site as we work to reach our growing targets through the spring and into the summer.”

Vaccinations for some local front-line health-care workers have already occurred at Merlis Belsher Place, starting back in December in the sport science centre, which includes the advanced freezer facilities required for storing vaccine.

“We were the main venue in Saskatoon for the health-care side of initial vaccinations in the sport science centre,” said Epp. “When there was a request from the SHA for a suitable space, it was the logical location. Because of its research infrastructure, it already had the appropriate freezer and clinical space, and exam rooms, so it really lent itself well to being able to deploy the vaccine there.”

For the past year during the global health crisis, the university’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) facility has been serving as a world-leading centre for COVID-19 vaccine research and development, with a wide variety of other pandemic-related research and support programs conducted in colleges all across campus.

“The beauty of being a major U15 research-intensive university is that we already have the compatible infrastructure and equipment in place to meet these kinds of requests,” said Epp. “And the university recognizes that this is a key part of our continued contribution to getting Saskatchewan back to whatever a new normal looks like.”

Post-pandemic, Merlis Belsher Place will revert to serving as the home for Huskie hockey and basketball teams, along with other Huskie student-athletes and community members accessing the facility daily. During the current circumstances, Epp said there is strong support in the campus community for USask to take a leading role in providing necessary facilities during the pandemic.

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