Alberta health-care workers say new masks don't seal, cause rashes and headaches

Masks delivered to health-care workers in Alberta this week are causing headaches and rashes for some, and don't adequately seal to protect workers from coronavirus, nurses say.

Union calls for production of protective equipment to be nationalized to protect workers from COVID-19

Nurses in Alberta say they are now using Vanch masks, which have caused rashes and headaches for some. They also say the masks don't form a proper seal to protect their nose and mouth from droplets. (Name withheld by request)

Masks delivered to health-care workers in Alberta this week are causing headaches and rashes for some, and don't adequately seal to protect workers and patients, nurses say.

But the Alberta government says the masks are safe and said calls to nationalize the manufacturing of personal protective equipment (PPE) are politicizing a crisis.

One Calgary nurse, who CBC News has agreed not to identify to protect her employment, said before this week her unit was supplied with procedural masks from Edmonton-based Pri-Med, a company registered with Health Canada that makes medical supplies.

But now they've switched to masks from Vanch, a company based in Shenzhen, China, that focuses on radio-frequency identification products but also makes thermometers and masks.

"[The new masks] have gaps along the side, you can't seal them along your face ... because the mask itself is so big and the loops on the side are so big, the seal on the top of the nose doesn't do anything. You put it on and you smile at your patient and your nose is exposed," the nurse said.

"They don't stay in place, they've got a funky odour and they're causing quite a lot of reactions ... with these ones, my face is actually burning and swollen."

She said within about 30 minutes of putting one of the new masks on, she started to feel a burning sensation along the edge of the mask and her airway felt constricted.

I feel like our lives are obviously worth more than that.- Calgary nurse

She could only handle wearing the mask for about 90 minutes, and her face stayed swollen and felt like it was burning until the following day. She said colleagues have reported similar issues.

She said there are some of the former, Pri-Med masks, available, and those are being prioritized for workers in units with COVID-19 cases and other respiratory illnesses.

"I feel like our lives are obviously worth more than that. And I feel they're putting us at a needless risk when we had the proper masks that were working.... These particular masks are horrible, horrible quality."

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Dr. Michael Chatenay, an Edmonton surgeon, said the new masks are of substandard quality, which has him worried about other supplies the province is procuring.

"What's even more concerning is, are the quality of the N95 masks we're going to be getting, are they going to be of the same quality? The 3M masks we're getting are very good.... These are the masks that are really important to protect our lives from this virus."

Health-care workers have shared similar frustrations on social media, with one poster sharing a video of how easily the new procedural mask slips off their nose.

Susan Slade is vice-president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, which represents 95,000 workers in the province, about half of whom work in health care. She said a number of workers have shared similar concerns about mask quality.

"People need these masks right now. They need to be able to wear them and they need to be able to feel safe at work," she told CBC News. 

"It doesn't matter how many thousands and thousands of masks we can procure.... If they're not of appropriate quality, what's the point?"

She wants to see the government obtain higher quality masks in the short term and to work toward nationalizing medical equipment production.

"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."

Call to nationalize 'preposterous'

Steve Buick, press secretary to provincial Health Minister Tyler Shandro, said all PPE procured by Alberta Health Services is safe and will protect staff and patients.

"The call to nationalize suppliers is preposterous, an example of politicizing the COVID-19 emergency to promote an irrelevant political agenda," he said. 

"AHS is doing a superb job of sourcing PPE. To do so, they're working with new suppliers, and that includes adjusting products to meet their needs and respond to staff concerns."

The minister's office said AHS is working on a process to reduce the smell from the procedural masks, and future shipments from the supplier will include corrections to improve fit.

Volunteers with Conquer COVID-19 collect donations of PPE in Calgary on Saturday. (Helen Pike/CBC)

On April 11 the province announced it had signed contracts valued at more than $200 million for PPE, including for millions of gowns and masks. The same day, the premier said the province would be shipping millions of pieces of excess medical equipment to provinces in need.

CBC News spoke to two nurses following that decision, who said while they applauded the province's generosity, they had concerns that as guidelines change to require more frequent changeover of PPE, workers could go through supplies faster than planned. CBC News has agreed not to identify those nurses to protect their employment.

Alberta Health Services said on Twitter that it has been sourcing alternative providers of products to ensure PPE continues to be readily available, and said the odour from the new procedural masks has to do with the plastic the masks are shipped in.

"Because regular supply chain for procurement of procedure masks cannot meet the required demand during this response, staff may see ten or more new brands of masks, over the coming weeks. These masks are all safe, certified and meet ASTM Level 1 filtration requirements," AHS said. 

AHS is also collecting and sterilizing used N95 masks, which provide a better filter and seal than procedural masks, in the event of a shortage.

Stories have surfaced internationally about subpar medical supplies arriving from China, and health-care workers across the country have expressed anxieties around PPE shortages.

On Saturday in Calgary, volunteers with national group Conquer COVID-19 were receiving donations of PPE to distribute to front-line workers.

Provincial Culture and Status of Women Minister Leela Aheer was there, helping collect donations.

She said while the government has made it easier to procure PPE, they're in uncharted territory, and non-profits can help fill gaps that open up.

"To have these organizations come to us and tell us where they're lacking, where the gaps are, it's really helpful for us because then we can figure out what's the best way forward. So I'm very grateful to anybody who responds or gives us feedback or criticism," she said.

With files from Joel Dryden, Terri Trembath, Helen Pike and Kashmala Fida

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