Dentists flock to buy industrial masks in hopes of getting back to business

Dental health professionals have been flocking to ABC Fire & Safety on Marion Street to buy respirator masks, the company’s president says.

A shortage of personal protective equipment and new health guidelines are behind the switch

Dentists in Manitoba have been lining up to get these industrial safety masks as they try and meet new provincial guidelines for dental work amid a shortage of personal protective equipment. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

A Winnipeg business that sells fire fighting and safety equipment is seeing a different kind of clientele these days.

Dental health professionals have been flocking to ABC Fire & Safety on Marion Street to buy respirator masks, the company's president says.

"I've never seen this kind of demand. My staff is working real hard to keep up," said Dave Jeanson, whose employees have been working seven days a week to keep up.

"Most of the time it's just the industrial sector, but now we're getting the dentists and doctors calling," he said.

ABC Fire & Safety president Dave Jeanson said he's gone from selling about 150 masks per month to selling hundreds per week. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

The hot commodity is a type of respirator mask normally worn by welders to protect them from fumes and gases. The MSA Advantage 200 LS respirator has a P100 rating, which offers more protection than the N95 mask commonly used by medical professionals.

Earlier this week dentists were given the green light to reopen after provincial health restrictions forced the closure of non-essential services due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Dentists who do reopen, though, must follow new provincial guidelines meant to protect staff and patients.

In addition to screening clients for any COVID-19 symptoms and implementing physical distancing strategies in waiting rooms, dentists must increase sanitization procedures and safety protocols.

Dentists face challenges with protective gear

The regulatory body for Manitoba's dentists is recommending the use of personal protective equipment, including masks, eye protection, gloves, booties and gowns — gear they say is in short supply right now.

"There's a general shortage of PPE, not only in Manitoba but across the country and not just for dentists but for health care in general, and at the beginning of this crisis a lot of dentists had donated their existing stocks of PPE to their medical colleagues," said Marc Mollot, president of the Manitoba Dental Association.

"Now that we're starting to move along the track here [toward reopening services] the challenge that we have, like many other health-care providers is that we're not seeing an easing on the supply lines of PPE at this point."

Over the last few weeks, dentists were only allowed to treat emergency cases, but starting this week the association has advised they can now begin to offer care to those who are classified as urgent as well.  

They can't do elective procedures or routine cleanings just yet, because many dental procedures create additional risks by producing aerosols, a vapourized version of saliva along with other microorganisms — including viruses — which can linger in the air and be breathed in by anyone in the area.

"Some procedures in dentistry and medicine create aerosols and that's where the N95 masks come in," said Mollot.

Dentists are advised to wear a N95 mask during procedures, but the masks have been in short supply since the beginning of the pandemic. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

While Mollot says they are not advising members to switch to P100 masks, he says it's up to dentists to use their discretion in finding an alternative.

"In the event that an N95 mask is not available, there may be dentists who are using their judgment to provide care with an equivalent or increased level of protection," he said.

Health Canada says since this particular type of mask is not indicated for medical purposes, they are not regulated as medical devices by the government and couldn't comment on the use in a dental setting.

The masks are made by American company MSA and are certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health for industrial use.

In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have given a temporary clearance for NIOSH-certified masks to be used in medical facilities, citing the urgent circumstances during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to meet the demands for respirators.

Selling hundreds of masks

The P100 masks cost $29 at ABC Fire & Safety and are reusable. They can be sanitized in three minutes with a specially designed spray. They require two filters to be attached on either side, which go for about $16 a pair and last between four and six months, depending on usage, Jeanson said.

They also require a special fitting to ensure a proper seal around the face, which takes about 20 minutes and costs about $35. 

The company has three testing machines going seven days a week to keep up with the demand.

"Normally we were selling 150 masks in a month. Now we're selling anywhere from 500 to 600 a week," said Jeanson.

Jeanson said dentists are choosing between two different styles of P100 masks that allow them to also wear eye protection or face shields. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

The masks, he said, are designed to protect whoever is wearing it, so the company still recommends the use of a procedure mask to be worn over top of the part of the mask wear breath comes out of the mask, or underneath it, to give it two-way protection.

Jeanson doesn't know if the switch to the reusable masks will be a permanent fixture in the medical world, but says given that they offer more protection, he can see how some might prefer it.

"They're a little bit bulkier than an N95 mask, but I think the way the world has changed in the last six months because of COVID-19, I think we are going to start seeing some changes in a lot of different industries, and I think this might be the new norm," he said.

Protecting patients, staff

Tara Vaughn works as a dental assistant and was at the store on Tuesday morning to get fitted for a mask. She said she's willing to do whatever it takes to get back to work and help her clients.

"What we usually wear at the office is just a level one mask, and we just need to be protected in what's going on [with the pandemic], both our side and the patient's side."

Dental assistant Tara Vaughn was fitted for a P100 mask on Tuesday. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Vaughn admits it's not the type of mask you'd normally associate with a trip to the dentist and that it may catch some people off guard.

"I think they'll understand it's what needs to be done," she said.

Vaughn said she's not worried about any added risks at her job because her office is taking extra steps to ensure safety.

"If we're taking the proper care and precautions, I'm not worried, as long as everyone's following what they need to do. I'm happy to get back to work," she said.

Frontline workers buying masks

Jeanson said many first responders are now switching to the masks also, with firefighters and paramedics among his clients. He says other front-line workers may also make the switch, given the difficulties in securing proper personal protective equipment, and the rising costs of N95 masks.

"The price [of N95s] has gone right through the roof, and it's not us that is increasing the price — it's just the suppliers, because there's nothing available right now," he said.

The masks need to be specially fitted to the user to ensure there's no leaks. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Jeanson said he's prioritizing orders for the masks for front-line workers ahead of the general public to ensure they can access supplies. He doesn't see the demand for these kinds of masks slowing down anytime soon, as many of his customers say they want to be ready in case there is a second wave of the virus in the province.

"I think everybody's ramping up and they're not going to slow down on getting their protective equipment, because I think a lot of people were caught off guard not having enough PPE," he said.

Dentists face challenges with protective gear

4 years ago
Duration 1:46
Featured VideoDentists in Manitoba have been lining up to get these industrial safety masks as they try and meet new provincial guidelines for dental work amid a shortage of personal protective equipment.