Nfld. & Labrador·CBC Investigates

Why 'unusable' PPE from the feds has been cluttering N.L.'s pandemic warehouse

There are piles of personal protective equipment that don't meet provincial standards lying around occupying space — lots of space — in Newfoundland and Labrador's pandemic warehouse.

Province has more stringent standards for some items; officials say stockpile now at healthy level

The Newfoundland and Labrador government has tens of thousands of KN95 masks sent by the federal government stored in its pandemic warehouse. Those KN95s do not meet the province's infection protection and control standards for medical use. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

There are hundreds of thousands of pieces of personal protective equipment sent by the federal government sitting in Newfoundland and Labrador's pandemic warehouse, but the gear has been deemed unusable — at least in this province. 

The medical equipment is not defective, and meets federal technical specifications for health care. But Newfoundland and Labrador's infection prevention and control standards for some types of equipment are more stringent.

That means piles of PPE are lying around occupying space — lots of space.

As of four months ago, there were 120,000 gowns, 100,000 face shields, and 350,000 KN95 respirators in the provincial inventory that were "unusable," according to internal provincial government documents obtained by CBC News through an access-to-information request. 

On Monday morning, health officials followed up to clarify that only 40,000 of the 350,000 KN95 respirators referenced in that decision note — which was titled "Personal Protective Equipment: Shipments from Federal Government" — came from Ottawa. The rest were purchased by the province early in the process.

Those "unusable" materials filled about 10 per cent of the warehouse space holding the province's pandemic stockpile.

So officials in Newfoundland and Labrador asked Ottawa late last year to stop sending those types of items.

"Our warehouses were getting full and we just couldn't store any more of it," John Kattenbusch, Central Health's vice-president of corporate services and the provincial shared services supply chain, said in an interview.

"Our supply had become stable, that we said, 'Look, we're probably not going to use that. So we don't need any more at this time.'" 

John Kattenbusch is Central Health’s vice-president of corporate services and the provincial shared services supply chain. (CBC)

Kattenbusch says provincial health officials work with people in the medical system, including unions, to agree on PPE standards in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"Our infection control people are the experts. They tell us what they consider to be needed to protect our employees," he said.

New shipments of the "unusable" items that don't meet those standards have stopped. But the feds won't take back PPE that's already been sent to the province. 

The KN95 masks — which differ from the better-known N95 masks — did not properly fit to be used for medical procedures, he said. 

Some items that could be used in sectors other than health care were distributed elsewhere, such as 100,000 litres of hand sanitizer sent to the province's school system and other parts of government.

And federal shipments of other equipment to Newfoundland and Labrador — like certain nitrile gloves and N95 respirators — are continuing.

N95 respirator masks are an important item of personal protective equipment. Newfoundland and Labrador continues to receive NIOSH-approved N95s from the Public Health Agency of Canada. (Nicholas Pfosi/Reuters)

In a statement to CBC News, the Public Health Agency of Canada said PPE allocated by the agency is verified to meet federal technical specifications for health-care settings.

The agency said it doesn't accept the return of PPE unless Health Canada has issued a recall, and added that it can't speak to the infection prevention and control standards implemented by individual provinces and territories.

N.L. aiming for 180-day PPE stockpile

The current availability of PPE in Newfoundland and Labrador is markedly different from a year ago, in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A CBC News investigation last year found that the province scrapped stockpiles that would have helped hospitals get through the early days of the crisis. Mounds of PPE expired, ended up in the garbage, and were not replaced. Warehouses were shuttered.

In early April 2020, Health Minister John Haggie said the system would normally have around 60 days of "burn rate" for the PPE inventory it carries.

"There have been occasions when that's been down to 10 days," Haggie said at the time.

Haggie acknowledged in the legislature last May that "PPE has been a challenge."

Later that same month, health officials cited the ongoing struggle to acquire PPE in delays rescheduling surgeries and rebooting the stressed medical system.

Kattenbusch says things are much better now.

"We're in very good shape, especially in relation to our suppliers, the stability of the supply chain, which has gotten better.… We certainly probably could last about six months," he said. 

The province has targeted a 180-day stockpile to cover needs during a high PPE "burn rate," such as during a pandemic.

A health-care worker packages a swab test at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site in St. John's on Feb. 15. The pandemic has resulted in an increased need for personal protective equipment, and the province has been working to build a PPE stockpile. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Kattenbusch says the warehouse is currently at 87 per cent of that target in terms of items on order, with 70 per cent of items actually on hand. 

"We are on track to certainly by the summer to have 180 days' [supply]," he said.

Kattenbusch added the Public Health Agency of Canada "has been at our back" in providing other vital equipment.

"We have had instances where we've had to send requests for assistance to them, and they've been able to stopgap or supply quantities of items that we needed immediately," Kattenbusch said.

That includes some equipment that would be needed in intensive-care units in case of a surge of COVID cases.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rob Antle

CBC News

Rob Antle is producer for CBC's investigative unit in Newfoundland and Labrador.

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