B.C. still struggling to procure enough PPE to end rationing

By Shannon Waters June 5, 2020

Twenty-seven million pairs of gloves. More than four million respirators. Over a million surgical gowns and pieces of eye protection and 4.5 million surgical masks.
The quantities of PPE the province has procured since the pandemic hit are startling, but health-care workers say they are still feeling the pinch. 
“What nurses report to me, continuously around the province, is that there is a shortage of personal protective equipment,” Christine Sorensen, president of the BC Nurses’ Union (BCNU), told BC Today in an interview. 
While the province has managed to avoid running out of PPE amid a intense global demand for  medical supplies, B.C.’s procurement efforts have yet to change the situation for front-line workers, who have had their access to necessary PPE restricted since March.
Procured supplies not enough to build up a stockpile
The PPE situation facing front-line health-care workers has not changed much since BC Today last spoke with Sorensen in early April. 
At that time, the province’s PPE supplies were ranked at Stage 4 under B.C.’s pandemic PPE allocation framework, meaning “all PPE levels remain intact but at least one item will be depleted within a matter of days.” 
The province remains at Stage 4 to this day. This means N95 respirators can be used beyond the manufacturer’s expiry date and health-care workers caring for patients can be directed to use only one mask for their entire shift. 
Health Minister Adrian Dix has been touting the province’s procurement efforts. Just last week, Dix said B.C. added 100,170 N95 or equivalent respirators, 728,150 surgical masks, 514,426 pieces of eye protection, 3,109,600 pairs of gloves and 732,290 gowns to its supply. 
However, Sorensen said the government should be doing more to clearly communicate the state of the province’s PPE stash.
“I’m asking for honesty and transparency and real numbers from the government about the amount of personal protective equipment that is actually available for use,” she said. “There are people who are getting infected in the health-care system … There are nurses who have been on ventilators in this province.”
Epidemiologic data released in early May showed that 428 health-care workers in B.C. had been infected with COVID-10 and 33 had been hospitalized. At least two health-care workers, Warlito Valdez and Dr. Denis Vincent, have died from the disease.  
Focus on developing domestic supply, Sorensen says
B.C. did catch a bit of a break last week when tests of a respirator similar to the in-demand N95 and ordered from “a new manufacturer in China” were cleared by Health Canada.
“This is excellent news for two reasons: we have a significant inventory of this product — three million respirators in B.C. — and are now assured that the product is safe and effective for our health-care workers,” Dix said. “And the availability of this equivalent product will reduce our reliance on the traditional 3M respirators that have been extremely difficult to procure due to global demand and supply chain issues.”
The new respirator is fluid resistant and delivered excellent fit-testing results, according to Dix.
Despite the good news, Sorensen worries that relying on international supply lines could leave B.C.’s health-care workers without adequate PPE if there is a second wave. 
“I don’t see a concerted effort being made to create disposable N95 masks in this country in a large enough number that will meet the needs of the health-care system,” she said. “It needs to be a concerted effort made by provincial and federal governments to look at made-in-Canada disposable N95 masks.”
There have been stories of B.C. businesses retooling their operations to manufacture medical supplies, but the province has not offered any direct funding to support their efforts.
In contrast, manufacturing-heavy Ontario has pledged $50 million to help companies jump-start retooling efforts. 
B.C.’s Ministry of Jobs, Economic Development and Competitiveness told BC Today it is “committed to supporting and working with B.C. manufacturers during the COVID-19 recovery,” but did not commit to any business funding plans.