British Columbia

Dental cancellations, layoffs possible due to mask shortage from COVID-19 hoarding

The B.C. Dental Hygienists Association of B.C. is warning its members could be laid off, and dental visits cancelled, if a medical mask shortage sparked by COVID-19 fears continues to grow.

Dentists, hygienists, doctors and nurses urge public to stop buying, hoarding disposable masks

Dentists and their staff wear masks to provide protection during long face-to-face sessions with patients. Concerns over COVID-19 have sparked a run on masks. (CBC)

The B.C. Dental Hygienists Association is warning its members could be laid off, and dental visits cancelled, if a medical mask shortage caused by COVID-19 fears continues to grow.

The hygienists' concerns are echoed by their employers — the dentists of the province, represented by the B.C. Dental Association — and fellow health care professionals.

Dentists, dental assistants and dental hygienists are required to wear a new, disposable mask for every patient they deal with, to protect themselves from splashes and sprays from the mouths of their patients.

But the masks have been in increasingly short supply, due to the current fears over the spread of​​​​​ COVID-19 — and the rush by the general public to buy-up the face masks on the mistaken belief they're needed for protection.

Health officials believe the novel coronavirus is spread by liquid droplets — not in the air. They don't recommend masks for healthy people in the general population, in part because wearing them can backfire, increasing how often someone touches their face to adjust the mask.

But for dental hygienists, they're essential.

"Dental hygienists cannot practice without a proper mask," says Andrea Burton, executive director of the B.C. Dental Hygienists Association. "[They're] really worried they're going to be looking at unemployment insurance, because they are not going to be able to work if they can't get the [masks]."

Jenni Jackson is one of those worried hygienists.

"We are very close, face to face with each individual we clean," says Jackson, 39. 

Besides her health, she's concerned about her job — and her young family.

"If I don't get work, where will that take us next?" she asks. "Will we be able to pay our mortgage next month?"

Masks sold out

There have been reports of hoarding, profiteering and even theft of masks from hospitals.

A survey of metro Vancouver pharmacies shows most have been sold-out of the disposable masks for days — but boxes are being sold for double the price online.

A check by CBC News found a box of 50 MedPro Defense Isolation Masks that originally went for $34.99 at London Drugs, now being sold on Craigslist Vancouver for $65 and up.

Face masks are an increasingly common sight in public due to concerns over COVID-19. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

That concerns Dr. Nathan Kennedy, a White Rock dentist, who recently had to scramble to find enough masks for his Smile Solutions clinic.

"What does it benefit you [the seller]?" he asks. "You know, you're going to make an extra 30 bucks reselling a box of masks, and so the frontline healthcare worker can't be safe." 

Suppliers rationing masks

Dr. Kennedy says given the regional, national and international demand, suppliers are also rationing the number of masks they're selling.

"Last week when we only had one source, the supplier confirmed we could only have six boxes of masks per month. That's about 300 masks," says Dr. Kennedy.

He says he normally needs at least 10 times that much, with six hygienists on staff, plus dental assistants. 

Kennedy says his office manager has found alternate supplies — for now.

"I'm going to buy whatever I can and make sure my supply is as stable as it can be...but at the end of the day, you can't endanger frontline health care workers and you definitely don't want to put any patients as risk for lack of supplies."

Kennedy says he would consider reducing appointments for dental cleaning and possibly restrict the number of daily patients, if mask shortages continue to grow and get "very severe." 

"You'd look for efficiencies," says Kennedy. "I mean, we'd start cutting back shifts."

'A growing concern"

The B.C. Dental Association admits the shortage of surgical masks "is a growing concern" but says it's not yet an issue.  "We have conveyed our concerns to the Ministry of Health and are continuing to look into alternative [supply] options," said the association in an email.

Now sold-out medical face masks are going for nearly double the original price on Craigslist Vancouver. (CraigsList)

The dental association has also established a screening protocol for all B.C. dentists, including questions about the health of the patient when calling to confirm appointments. 

That's something Dr. Kennedy says is critical.

"If they've made it past the front door, hey, our infection control protocol has probably already failed," says Kennedy.

'In tight supply'

Dentists and hygienists acknowledge doctors and nurses justifiably take precedence when it comes to mask supplies, since those frontline health professionals deal with medical emergencies.

Dr. Kathleen Ross,  president of the Doctors of B.C., which represents B.C. physicians, says hospitals have a sufficient number of masks right now, but they're "definitely in tight supply."

"We have seen large-scale purchasing of masks [by the public], which is really unnecessary," she said.

The B.C. Nurses Union is also asking for an end to the run on masks.

"We're calling on the public to please leave the appropriate supplies," says Christine Sorensen of the BCNU.

'Just calm down'

Jenni Jackson has a simple message for those who continue to snap up disposable face masks.

"We should just calm down a little bit and realize that panic doesn't need to set in," she says.

If not, the dental hygienist has a warning.

"We won't be able to serve the public like we need to."

With files from Nadia Jannif and Paisley Woodward


Eric Rankin

Investigative journalist

Eric Rankin is an award-winning CBC reporter. His honours include the 2018 Canadian Screen Award for Best Local Reportage, the 2017 and 2015 RTDNA awards for Best In-depth/Investigative Reporting, and the 2009 Jack Webster award for Best News Reporting.