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Coronavirus pandemic puts Canada’s supply of ventilators in the spotlight

Coronavirus outbreak: Scheer asks about number of ventilators available to Canadian healthcare system
WATCH ABOVE: Scheer asks about number of ventilators available to Canadian health-care system

The novel coronavirus pandemic has brought attention to the global supply of ventilators, the medical devices that allow people experiencing difficulty breathing to receive oxygen.

Ventilator shortages are one component of Italy’s struggle to care for those who are most seriously ill. The country has been hit the hardest out of all European nations, with more than 1,800 deaths and nearly 25,000 cases. China recently supplied Italy with 40 ventilators, along with 31 tonnes of other supplies.

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Italy, along with other countries, is scrambling to procure an additional supply of ventilators. Britain has asked companies including Ford, Honda and Rolls Royce to help make health equipment, including ventilators, to cope with the outbreak.

While Canada has had far fewer cases of the new virus than Britain or Italy — nearly 450 as of Tuesday — questions have been raised about the availability of ventilators in this country as well.

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Coronavirus outbreak: More than 25,000 Canadians tested for COVID-19
Coronavirus outbreak: More than 25,000 Canadians tested for COVID-19

How is Canada faring?

In B.C., Health Minister Adrian Dix said there were 1,272 ventilators, and the Alberta government says it has 477 with another 50 on order. Nova Scotia reportedly has 240, with another 140 on order. Manitoba health officials told reporters the province has 243 ventilators with another 20 on order.

Newfoundland and Labrador officials told Global News they have 156 ventilators. Saskatchewan has 91 adult ventilators for critical care, 80 additional subacute ventilators and 250 additional ventilators ordered. P.E.I. has 19, with 15 on order.

Nunavut has seven ventilators immediately available, but all intensive care patients are transported elsewhere.

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Paul-Émile Cloutier, head of a group that represents health-care organizations and hospitals, said he’s hearing from members that they have enough ventilators to meet current needs.

But he’s concerned about what could happen if the outbreak worsens.

“If there was a surge of patients coming through to which they would need to be hospitalized, then you may have a shortage of ventilators,” said Cloutier, president of HealthCareCAN, in an interview Friday. “Their issue is, where would you get them?”

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Most hospitals in Canada are already operating at 110 per cent capacity, Cloutier said.

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He worries about how they would manage more patients — from a health-care provider perspective but also in terms of infrastructure.

“They’re worried they may not have the supplies or the material down the road should that number go any higher than what it is today,” he said.

What is a ventilator?

Ventilators are mechanical breathing devices that use pressure to blow air into the lungs to ensure a patient is receiving enough oxygen.

They are mainly used in intensive care medicine and emergency medicine, but are also used when a patient undergoing surgery is heavily anesthetized.

Coronavirus outbreak: Canadian health official says country rapidly updating messaging on self-isolation at borders, airports
Coronavirus outbreak: Canadian health official says country rapidly updating messaging on self-isolation at borders, airports

Ventilators are crucial to the care of people with lung failure, which can be one of the complications suffered by patients with severe cases of COVID-19.

It’s not clear how many are available in Canadian hospitals.

A national study undertaken after the H1N1 outbreak of 2009-10 found that there were fewer than 5,000 mechanical ventilators available at acute care facilities for those facing critical illness.

What is Canada doing?

Ottawa has earmarked more than $11 billion to combat COVID-19 and its effects on the economy.

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The Public Health Agency of Canada is receiving $50 million to make sure enough personal protective equipment, such as surgical masks, face shields and isolation gowns, is available to the provinces. The federal government is leading a bulk purchasing effort to help them procure such supplies.

Coronavirus outbreak: Canada’s chief health officer says people with COVID-19 symptoms remain most infectious
Coronavirus outbreak: Canada’s chief health officer says people with COVID-19 symptoms remain most infectious

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, was asked about the supply of ventilators in Canada and the ability for the country to address a surge in demand. She said that type of planning is underway.

“Things like ventilators, personal protective equipment — like masks and gloves and such, hand sanitizers and laboratory-type testing equipment or swabs — those are all part of the federally facilitated co-ordinated purchasing mechanism,” she told reporters Sunday.

READ MORE: Latest updates on the coronavirus in Canada

On Thursday, prior to the suspension of Parliament due to the pandemic, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer asked the government whether Canada has secured a supplier for additional ventilators.

“This is a vital piece of medical equipment for managing symptoms of the disease,” he said during question period. “In countries like Italy, when cases spiked, local resources were overwhelmed and doctors were forced to make heartbreaking decisions.”

Coronavirus outbreak: NSHA coordinating with partners on ventilator availability
Coronavirus outbreak: NSHA coordinating with partners on ventilator availability

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said Ottawa is working to address medical equipment needs through the national bulk purchasing plan.

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“Our absolute priority is the health and safety of Canadians,” she said. “The federal government is and will continue to provide leadership in partnership with the provinces, territories and all Canadians.”

— With files from Reuters