Nfld. & Labrador

Dentists, nurses sound alarm on lack of masks in N.L.

"Ultimately when the masks run out, so does our ability to help people," says Bay Roberts dentist Michelle Zwicker.

'Ultimately when the masks run out, so does our ability to help people,' says Bay Roberts dentist

Nurses and dentists are asking people to leave masks for the people who genuinely need them. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

A shortage of masks is causing alarm for health-care workers and dentists in Newfoundland and Labrador whose work is essential during the COVID-19 crisis.

Dr. Michelle Zwicker, vice-president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Dental Association, says the lack of supplies has been dogging their industry for more than a month.

Without the proper masks they need, she warns, people in need of treatment won't get the help they need. 

"Ultimately when the masks run out, so does our ability to help people," said Zwicker, managing director and principal dentist at Bay Roberts Dental Health Centre.

Members of the dental association have been reporting a limitation on supplies since January, she said.

In dental practice, the ASTM Level 3 masks are the standard for oral exams to protect against aerosol spray and airborne particles.

As dentists continue to see emergency patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for protection is even greater.

A dentist works on a patient at a dental clinic. (The Associated Press)

Dental offices have been rationing masks, Zwicker said, as there are no more available from the supplier.

"[The supplier] actually doesn't have a clear message as to why the supply isn't there. They're simply saying they do not have it, and they have no estimate as to when the supply will be here."

"It's part of our universal precautions. Everyday we are going through multiple masks. And it's not just for sick people."

Without an end in sight, the association is pleading with people in the general public to purchase ASTM Level 3 and N95 masks only if they need them.

"Please don't buy them. Please don't take them from people who need them."

Nurses in need of N95, union says

In hospitals across the province, nurses on the front lines are concerned for their own safety as the total number of COVID-19 cases climbs to four.

Debbie Forward, president of the Registered Nurses' Union of Newfoundland and Labrador, wants nurses to be outfitted with the N95 mask, which blocks 95 per cent of air particles, in all situations, not just when doing a medical procedure.

"We work in situations where you can't wait if a patient has a cardiac arrest. You can't stop and say, 'Hang on now, I need to change out my mask before I start CPR,'" Forward said.

It doesn't just stop with masks, Forward said, with members raising concerns over a lack of gloves, gowns and face shields.

But she understands the challenge the provincial government is up against in getting the supplies they need.

"This is the one time when the system does have to prepare for the what ifs in terms of numbers of individuals who might require care within the system," Forward said when reached by phone Friday afternoon.

Nurses' union president Debbie Forward says nurses need access to personal protection equipment. (CBC)

Health Minister John Haggie said Friday he has been in contact with the federal health minister about medical supplies.

"We have daily inventories being prepared," Haggie told reporters during a daily COVID-19 media briefing.

Haggie said the only situation where physicians have been unable to access masks are in private offices, where they would handle their own orders. 

He said N95 masks are not needed outside of the operating room and intensive-care or high-dependency units.

"We are focusing on the basis of best evidence on preserving the use of N95 masks for those areas," Haggie said.

Things are changing by the day, Forward said, and communication is changing rapidly on what the protection should be.

"They feel they are not being protected at the highest standard."

Forward said items like hand sanitizer had been going missing from health facilities, but that appears to have subsided. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Ariana Kelland

Investigative reporter

Ariana Kelland is a reporter with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's. She is working as a member of CBC's Atlantic Investigative Unit. Email:


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