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Coronavirus: Canadian doctors call for smarter use of medical gear amid supply concerns

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The Canadian government is procuring a “bulk” stockpile of medical supplies amid concerns about a looming shortage that may leave frontline health care workers ill-equipped to confront the COVID-19 pandemic.

The government is seeking suppliers to provide a range of critical items, including surgical masks, gloves and goggles, which help protect the nurses and doctors who treat contagious patients.

The search for suppliers also coincides with concerns that some of the existing equipment in Canadian hospitals is going missing, without explanation.

Dr. Sohail Gandhi, president of the Ontario Medical Association, told Global News that he has heard some “isolated stories” of medical professionals who are requesting more equipment.

“We need to make sure that we use protect personal protective equipment, or PPE, in the appropriate manner,” Gandhi said.

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READ MORE: Demand for face masks causes concern among Canadian health-care workers

Apart from surgical masks and gloves, PPE could also include N95 respirators, face shields, isolation gowns and coveralls.

Gandhi said there have been reports of medical professionals using supplies when it’s not always necessary. He gave the example of family doctors.

“In my family practice, what we’ve done is we’ve moved to virtual care, and we’re screening people before they come in,” he said. “We’re calling them and asking them the appropriate questions.”

For other doctors, wearing protective equipment is far from optional, he said.

“If someone’s working in a screening centre where they’re swabbing people for COVID-19, and other illnesses, they need PPE,” Gandhi explained.

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There are also concerns in Nova Scotia that such equipment is being taken from facilities. 

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On Monday, the Nova Scotia Health Authority issued a new plea to its staff members to stop taking masks and other personal protective gear from its facilities.

“The reality is, we don’t want to get to a point where we don’t have the resources to protect people two and three weeks down the road,” said NSHA president Brendan Carr, while urging for the supplies to be brought back.  

READ MORE: Coronavirus: NSHA urges staff to stop taking face masks from its facilities

It’s not just a problem in Canada, either. The World Health Organization highlighted concerns about protective gear being in short supply weeks ago. 

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The WHO estimated roughly 89 million medical masks will be needed each month for the COVID-19 response, along with 76 million examination gloves and more than one million goggles.

Overall, it estimated that protective equipment supplies need to be increased by 40 per cent worldwide to meet demands of the pandemic.

The organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, spoke of the concerns on March 3. 

“Shortages are leaving doctors, nurses and other frontline health care workers dangerously ill-equipped to care for COVID-19 patients, due to limited access to supplies such as gloves, medical masks, respirators, goggles, face shields, gowns, and aprons,” he said.

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“We can’t stop COVID-19 without protecting our health workers.”

Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses, echoed those concerns in an interview, noting that health care workers are unable to practice social distancing while on the job.

National emergency stockpile

While federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu has said the government stockpiles medical equipment, officials have been tight-lipped about exactly which supplies and how much are kept.

“We are very alive to the fact that some provinces are indicating that they have deficits,” Hajdu said at a press conference last week.

“We are gathering that information and we have said all along that we will be there as a federal government to support them with the resources they need, whether those are financial resources or practical resources,” she added, noting that includes protective equipment.

Canada has a national emergency stockpile, which includes medical equipment and supplies, pharmaceuticals, and social service supplies such as beds.

The stockpile was created in 1952 amid tensions caused by the Cold War.

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In response to COVID-19, the federal government has also said it has set aside $50 million for personal protective equipment needed to fight the pandemic. The Public Health Agency of Canada’s website explains the supplies will be made available to local, provincial and territorial governments and health workers as needed.

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Earlier this month, the federal Ministry of Public Services and Procurement put a callout for Canadian manufacturers who are are able to help the government’s supply during the pandemic. 

Posted on March 12, the callout reads: “In support of the Government of Canada’s whole-of-government response to Coronavirus disease (COVID-19), we are asking suppliers about their ability to provide products and services.”

READ MORE: Canadians ‘do not need to panic’ about food shortages amid COVID-19, experts say

It highlights supplies such as disposable N95 masks, disposable surgical masks, nitrile gloves, vinyl gloves, gowns, and hand sanitizer. 

In an email to Global News, the ministry said the callout came after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced plans to “lead a bulk procurement efforts on healthcare supplies responding to the COVID-19 outbreak.”

A federal spokesperson also said that Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland wrote to all premiers on March 9, to announce that the federal government intended to lead “bulk procurement” efforts related to the COVID-19 crisis.

“In leading this coordinated procurement approach for Canada, we stand ready to take further action to support the provinces and territories, our frontline health workers and Canadians,” it read.

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Public use of supplies also a concern

In British Columbia, seniors care providers have also warned members of the public to stop buying and hoarding protective equipment after a care worker tested positive for COVID-19 at the Lynn Valley Care Centre a nursing home struck with an outbreak that has led to several fatalities.

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Gandhi, from the Ontario Medical Association, said face masks are not necessary for those who are not sick.

“If you’re healthy, don’t wear a mask. But wash your hands regularly.”

READ MORE: Demand for face masks on the rise amid coronavirus outbreak — but are they effective?

The same advice has been given to Canadians by officials, including chief public health officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam.

“Wearing masks when you’re well is not an effective measure. Sometimes it can actually present some risks, as you’re putting your fingers up and down on your face, removing your mask, putting them next to your eyes,” Dr. Tam said at an earlier media briefing.

She noted masks are more useful for people who are “actually sick.”