Alberta mask issues a matter of personal preference, official says

New procedural masks manufactured in China meet clinical standards and any issues have more to do with personal preference for an older model, a senior Alberta health official said Monday. 

Health care workers report problems with fit, smell and quality of Chinese-manufactured masks

Some nurses in Alberta say they are now using Vanch masks, which don't form a proper seal to protect their nose and mouth from droplets. (Name withheld by request)

New procedural masks manufactured in China meet clinical standards and any issues have more to do with personal preference for an older model, a senior Alberta health official said Monday. 

"We recognize that masks are really, really personal because they touch your face," Jitendra Prasad, the Alberta Health Services official in charge of contracting and procurement, said at the government's daily COVID-19 update. "And therefore there is also the issue of comfort that people are looking for when wearing masks."

Health-care workers have been raising concerns about the safety of the masks manufactured by Vanch. They say poor construction prevents the mask from sealing around their noses, allowing the fabric to slip down their faces. 

Others reported poor workmanship and an unpleasant odour. Some said the masks caused rashes to break out on their faces. 

Prasad suggested the issues were part of the switch from the old style of masks that were used by AHS for 20 years. He said Alberta has been buying masks from China for two decades.

Prasad said the masks were tested before they are purchased. He said AHS is working with the manufacturer to increase the size of the mask and improve the fit around the nose. 

As for the odour problem, Prasad it was caused by masks being sealed in plastic while they were still hot from the manufacturing process. AHS is now taking the masks out of the wrappers and airing them out in boxes before sending them to staff. 

Anyone who experiences irritation from the new masks can request another style to use, he said.

On Sunday, Alberta Health Services announced the creation of a new focus group that will allow staff and union representatives to review personal protective equipment obtained by the health authority. 

Questions about mask supply were sparked over the Easter weekend after Premier Jason Kenney said the province had donated thousands of N95 and procedural masks to Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia because Alberta had a surplus.

That created speculation that the "good" masks were sent out of province leaving the problematic Chinese-manufactured masks for Alberta health care workers 

Health Minister Tyler Shandro said this isn't true. 

"All procedural masks which have been sent to other provinces were sourced from manufacturers in China. Those same masks are also being used here in Alberta," Shandro said. 

"The masks sourced from China are safe for use in Alberta and all other provinces." 

Hospice shortages 

On Monday, the Alberta NDP held a news conference with a physician whose hospice was forced to borrow procedure masks from another facility last week while waiting nine days for a shipment from AHS. 

Dr. Ulrich Lauf, medical director of the 20-bed Agapé Hospice in Calgary, said the shipment finally arrived early Sunday, more than a week after Hinshaw ordered health-care staff who work with patients to wear procedure masks at all times. 

If the hospice had run out of masks, Lauf said, staff would have been forced to transfer patients to acute care beds in one of Calgary's hospitals.

David Shepherd, the opposition critic for health, said the NDP caucus has heard from hundreds of frontline essential workers concerned about the quality and supply of PPE. They include grocery store staff, dentists and staff at funeral homes. 

Shepherd wants the government to provide a list of what agencies and businesses are getting PPE from the provincial supply, and when they can expect shipments. 

He wants AHS to publicly report each week on PPE usage, inventory and incoming shipments. 

To help groups and facilities that use PPEs, Shepherd wants the government to staff an around-the-clock phone line to field emergency requests.