Calgary

AHS creating focus group to address health-care workers' PPE concerns

Alberta Health Services says it's creating a focus group to review and advise on new personal protective equipment (PPE) it's procuring in the fight against COVID-19, as health-care workers continue to raise concerns about the quality of new masks obtained from a manufacturer based in China.

Health-care workers say the masks cause headaches, rashes

Volunteers collect donations of PPE in Calgary on April 18, 2020, to distribute to health-care workers. Workers are raising concerns about the quality of new masks being procured in Alberta, and Alberta Health Services has set up a task force to look in to the issue. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Alberta Health Services says it's creating a focus group to review and advise on new personal protective equipment (PPE) it's procuring in the fight against COVID-19, as health-care workers continue to raise concerns about the quality of new masks obtained from a manufacturer based in China.

On Saturday, CBC News spoke to nurses and doctors who say the new masks obtained from supplier Vanch, which is based in Shenzhen, are causing headaches and rashes, and don't seal properly.

"[Staff] feedback is valuable, we are taking it seriously, and we are working to ensure they continue to have safe, reliable and comfortable PPE," AHS said in a tweet on Sunday. "The focus group will help AHS work with staff to share information on the new products and to help minimize any impacts of new types of PPE."

AHS said those health-care workers interested in sharing feedback can email PPE@ahs.ca with the subject line: FOCUS GROUP.

Health-care workers continue to speak out about issues they are experiencing with the new procedure masks, and are also asking why the province has also ordered a shipment of KN95 respirators, which are regulated by the Chinese government, instead of N95s, which are tested in North America.

'I feel anxious going to work,' ER doctor says

Dr. Shazma Mithani is an emergency room doctor in Edmonton. She said the new Vanch masks, delivered to her workplace, don't fit properly and are extremely uncomfortable to wear. 

She said she's not reassured by comments from AHS that it plans to ask the manufacturer to improve the fit.

"My concern with waiting is that as we're speaking there are health-care workers who are wearing these masks right now and are not being adequately protected from from the spread of COVID-19," she said, adding that if she happened to be an asymptomatic carrier of the illness, she could pose a risk to her patients as well. 

"Now I feel anxious going to work ... I feel I'm not going to be adequately protected."

She said she was also apprehensive after seeing a tweet from Alberta Premier Jason Kenney on Saturday, stating that the province has received an order of two-million KN95 respirators instead of N95s.

"100 per cent that concerns me. I put my faith in in Health Canada and what their recommendations and stringent standards are. And I think that that's what every province should be following," she said.

In mid-March, Canada's health minister issued an interim order to allow the use of some medical devices that have yet to be authorized for use in Canada in the fight against COVID-19, and Health Canada says some KN95 masks can be used as alternatives to N95s. That list includes KN95 masks from three manufacturers.

However, there are reports of some countries and U.S. states recalling KN95 masks for not meeting safety standards.

KN95 masks not headed to the front lines

A spokesperson with Alberta emergency management said the shipment of KN95 masks are destined for workers not on AHS front lines, such as pharmacists, shelter workers, funeral home employees and others in need of PPE but perhaps at less direct risk than a doctor in a COVID-19 unit.

He said N95 masks are globally scarce, and continue to be prioritized for those on the front lines — the KN95 order is intended to get PPE to as many workers in need as possible.

Mraiche Holding Corporation, which supplies AHS with Vanch masks, which manufactures the procedure masks that health-care workers have expressed concerns about, is listed on Health Canada's list of manufacturers with a Medical Device Establishment Licence, AHS said.

United Nurses of Alberta said in a Facebook post that it has raised concerns about PPE with AHS' workplace health and safety, and said AHS is investigating.

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