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AUPE slams UCP for ‘shoddy surgical masks’ provided to front-line workers fighting COVID-19

An AHS worker administers a swab test for COVID-19 at a drive-thru testing centre in Calgary.
An AHS worker administers a swab test for COVID-19 at a drive-thru testing centre in Calgary. Courtesy / AHS

Alberta’s largest public sector union said Saturday that it was concerned over “shoddy surgical masks” being provided to front-line workers dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a news release, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees said that the surgical masks causing issues were part of a $200 million shipment of personal protective equipment (PPE) that was announced by the provincial government on April 11. 

AUPE said that since the new masks were delivered to facilities around the province, health-care workers have raised concerns about the poor craftsmanship of the new PPE.

Emergency room doctor Shazma Mithani said she noticed the difference in quality immediately.

“The metal piece that’s on the nose that secures the mask to our face was quite weak and flimsy,” Mithani explained Sunday. “The mask was sliding down my nose every time I would even just move my mouth to talk.”

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She said when that happens, her first instinct is to touch her face.

“Which is the least safe thing to do when you’re in a room with a COVID patient,” she said. 

“When I have these masks on I do not feel safe.”

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Plane full of PPE lands in Edmonton from China

The union said staff are reporting surgical masks that do not seal their faces properly, pinch their noses and have straps that fall apart during patient care.

Many have also experienced nausea, headaches, skin rashes and throat irritation after wearing the masks, which have an unpleasant and overwhelming odour. Some sites have started sending stock back, said AUPE.

“This is the kind of delay we absolutely can’t afford,” said AUPE vice president Susan Slade.

 “Our political leaders need to understand that in a pandemic every second counts. Every glitch adds up. And it puts lives at risk.”

A photo of one of the new masks delivered to health-care workers in Alberta. Employees are raising concerns about their quality.
A photo of one of the new masks delivered to health-care workers in Alberta. Employees are raising concerns about their quality. Courtesy / AUPE

Steve Buick, the press secretary for the Ministry of Health, said Saturday in a statement that “all PPE procured by AHS is safe and will protect staff and patients.”

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He added that Alberta Health Services is doing a “superb job” of sourcing PPE, including adjusting products to meet needs and responding to staff concerns. He said that due to supply issues, staff could see 10 or more new brands delivered to facilities over the coming weeks.

Buick also addressed the reports of odour from staff.

“The masks are sealed in a plastic covering immediately after manufacturing to prevent from contamination,” his statement read. “This creates a smell as the masks are sealed immediately after they come off the production cycle.

“AHS is working on a process to remove the masks from the plastic before distributing them, to reduce the smell before use.”

Buick added that future shipments from the supplier will include corrections to the nose piece of the masks and a one-centimetre increase in size to improve the fit.

On April 11, Premier Jason Kenney said that Alberta would be sending 750,000 N95 masks, 4.5 million procedural masks and 30 million protective gloves to Quebec, Ontario and B.C.

READ MORE: 1 additional death from COVID-19 in Alberta; province will send equipment to other areas of Canada: Kenney

Kenney said at the time that the province was “ahead of track” when it came to PPE supply, due to early preparation and orders from Alberta Health Services officials.

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“If we have issues and fears as healthcare providers about the PPE adequacy in our own province — we should be taking care of ourselves first before we are being appropriately generous to other provinces,” Mithani said on Sunday. 

Coronavirus outbreak: Alberta to send hundreds of thousands of PPE to other provinces
Coronavirus outbreak: Alberta to send hundreds of thousands of PPE to other provinces

The United Nurses of Alberta, which represents 30,000 nursing professionals in the province, also addressed the issue on its Facebook page this week. 

It said that it was asking employees to submit complaints to AHS if they are having issues with the provided masks.

READ MORE: AHS collecting used N95 masks, may sterilize and reuse them

AUPE calls for local production

In its release, AUPE said that it believes the province needs to begin producing personal protective equipment in Alberta.

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“The only way we can truly ensure quality control and timely distribution of PPE is if it’s manufactured in-house, in Alberta, and overseen by a public body,” said Slade.

“Working Albertans on the front lines of the COVID-19 struggle are heroes. They deserve gratitude but even more than that, they deserve PPE that keeps them healthy and safe while they fight to save lives, not shoddy, unusable, unhealthy stop gap measures.”

Buick told Global News on Saturday that “the call to nationalize suppliers is preposterous.”

“[It’s] an example of politicizing the COVID-19 emergency to promote an irrelevant political agenda,” he said.

Mithani noted she was confident in the supplies they had previously – now she’s concerned about what will happen when they ultimately run out.

“I’m worried about exposing myself to COVID, I’m worried about bringing that home to my family,” she said.

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“What if I’m an asymptomatic carrier [and] I expose patients to COVID? I’m very anxious to go to work now.”

AUPE represents 95,000 working Albertans, about half in health care.

AHS collecting used N95 masks, may sterilize and reuse them
AHS collecting used N95 masks, may sterilize and reuse them