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‘Stop buying masks!’: B.C. care providers say hoarding linked to coronavirus causing medical supply shortage

Click to play video 'Increased challenges for caregivers amidst COVID-19 outbreak' Increased challenges for caregivers amidst COVID-19 outbreak
The outbreak at a B.C. care home has highlighted the increased challenges faced by caregivers. Kristen Robinson reports on how they are risking exposure to COVID-19 and the dwindling medical supplies.

As a North Vancouver nursing home remains under an “outbreak protocol” after recording B.C.’s first death from COVID-19, industry associations representing the province’s seniors care providers are urging the public to stop hoarding critical medical supplies needed to care for the most vulnerable.

On Saturday, health officials announced that two residents of the Lynn Valley Care Centre tested positive for COVID-19, along with a care worker. The elderly male resident passed away Sunday night.

The care worker is the province’s first known case of community transmission of COVID-19, and health officials are still unsure if her contact occurred within the facility or if she brought the virus into the long-term care home.

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Expanding outbreak prompts changes to daily activities

Meantime, a group that represents more than 350 B.C. care home operators says those who work with the elderly population are being vigilant and doing everything “humanly possible to ensure that COVID-19 doesn’t enter into a long-term care home.”

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In terms of prevention, influenza protocols are in effect including frequent room sanitization, and the use of surgical masks, gloves, gowns, and anti-septic wipes by care-home employees.

Since long-term care staff often work at more than one site, there is a low threshold for illness and employees are encouraged to stay home if they are sick.

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“Obviously we know with COVID-19 the mortality rate is much higher,” BC Care Providers Association CEO Daniel Fontaine said.

“So I think that everyone’s on heightened alert.”

Fontaine knows his organization’s members and the families they serve are nervous about what’s next.

“It’s a stressful time,” he said.

Click to play video 'Dr. Bonnie Henry announces first coronavirus death in British Columbia' Dr. Bonnie Henry announces first coronavirus death in British Columbia
Dr. Bonnie Henry announces first coronavirus death in British Columbia

Adding to the stress and uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus outbreak is the surge demand for medical supplies including surgical masks and gloves.

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“The public has reacted in a way that we’ve never seen before,” Fontaine told Global News.

“Very healthy British Columbians are buying medical supplies and taking them out of the system.”

Fontaine says medical mask providers report their stock is running low and distributors are having trouble getting access to more medical supplies, creating a critical shortage for care workers.

SafeCare BC, a non-profit association that works to ensure safe working conditions for the province’s more than 28,000 continuing care employees, says a survey of its members found 57 per cent reported issues ordering personal protective equipment – especially surgical masks, N95 masks, gloves and alcohol-based hand sanitizers.

READ MORE: 2 Surrey schools notified of COVID-19 cases, Fraser Health says risk is low

“When healthy people purchase items such as surgical masks, they are increasing the risk that care workers won’t have them at care homes or when they provide home care,” SafeCare BC CEO Jennifer Lyle said in a news release.

“We’re encouraging everyone to refrain from purchasing medical supplies unless they are themselves ill and wanting to reduce the risk to other people.”

British Columbians who are not ill are now being urged to follow the advice of the U.S. Surgeon General’s office, which tweeted a stern message on Feb. 29: “Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS!”

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The statement from the top doctor in the U.S. reiterated that surgical masks are not effective in preventing the general public from catching the new coronavirus, “but if health-care providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”

Fontaine encourages anyone who is not under doctor’s orders to wear a surgical or N95 mask, to leave the medical supplies in the marketplace for care homes and hospitals that desperately need them.

“People who are elderly with immune systems that are compromised with comorbidities are the most at risk of being impacted,” Fontaine said.

“We have to make sure those supplies get to the people that are there to keep them safe.”

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SafeCare BC also claims several care homes are reporting that the cost of dwindling supplies is spiking, and in one extreme case, surgical masks were being sold for up to 11 times their previous listed price.

The BC Care Providers Association says it has been communicating with the province to determine whether critical medical supplies will be prioritized for health-care facilities and care homes during any potential pandemic.

When asked if any medical supplies are being stockpiled for this purpose, the Ministry of Health said “mask supply and inventory management for health authorities is being coordinated provincially and we anticipate sufficient supply to meet health authority care needs in B.C.”