After feeling the impact of a personal protective equipment shortage amid the coronavirus health crisis, a Saskatchewan First Nation and the Alberta-based pipe company it owns are quite literally shifting gears and getting into the medical mask-making business.
“There was a huge shortage for the community,” said Moosomin First Nation Chief Bradley Swiftwolfe. “We had looked for some orders and we just couldn’t receive anything for months on end.”
In early spring, as the novel coronavirus began to rapidly spread through the Indigenous communities that make up the northern part of the province, Moosomin decided to do something about it.
The idea for MediMask Canada was born.
Moosomin First Nation is the majority owner of Western Alliance, a steel company in Edmonton that works with a Chinese partner, Victoria International Tubular, to process pipes for the oil patch.
While business was turbulent before the pandemic, it became slower still as governments put restrictions in place to try to slow the infection rate, said Western Alliance CEO Larry Kryska.
And then U.S. President Donald Trump told N95 respirator supplier 3M to stop sending its product to Canada, a request that 3M ultimately thwarted.
“The country and provinces have seen that being dependent at a time of crisis on other countries sometimes isn’t the best thing,” Kryska said, noting quality control and political unrest were also adding to a sense of uneasiness around acquiring personal protective equipment, or PPE, in the era of COVID-19.
“Seeing those problems that were occurring, there was a call. There was a calling for some help domestically.”
MediMask Canada, Moosomin’s new $2-million enterprise, began operations in Edmonton a week ago Wednesday.
The company is using special filtration fabric supplied by its same Chinese partner, which also helped with equipment acquisition.
Right now, the company has the capacity to produce 50,000 surgical masks per day, but has long-term plans to triple output.
On Thursday, it will begin manufacturing N95 respirators. Kryska, who is also MediMasks’s CEO, estimates it will be able to make 21,000 of those per day.
MediMask already has orders, including from the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) in Saskatchewan and the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority, Kryska said.
Battlefords Agency Tribal Chiefs represents seven First Nations, including Moosomin. The organization’s communications director, Alexis Christensen, has been working on coordinating the communities’ pandemic response.
“I think it’s amazing what Moosomin is doing,” she said.
“It just shows that not only are they going to support this company, but obviously there’s a huge need and there’s a real gap when it comes to supplies,” Christensen said.
Just as Moosomin is diversifying its business portfolio, MediMask Canada also hopes to expand to include a broader range of customers.
“Our focus is the Indigenous communities,” said Kryska, but noted the company is also working with Edmonton distributors and is bidding on government tenders.
“We’re in it for the long-term,” he said.
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus. In some provinces and municipalities across the country, masks or face coverings are now mandatory in indoor public spaces.
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