Nfld. & Labrador·CBC Investigates

N.L. closed warehouses with millions of masks and gowns in years before pandemic

A CBC News investigation has found over the last several years Newfoundland and Labrador scrapped stockpiles that would have helped through this crisis.

Province 'caught with their pants down,' says PC leader

Equipment needed in Newfoundland and Labrador to protect front-line workers during the COVID-19 pandemic was thrown out and never replaced. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Newfoundland and Labrador has struggled to get enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for health-care workers, but a CBC News investigation has found over the last several years it scrapped stockpiles that would have helped through this crisis.

After the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, the provincial government started to stock up for the next outbreak. In a nondescript warehouse in Donovans industrial park in Mount Pearl, Eastern Health stashed supplies of items it is now struggling to get.

The regional health authority bought 500,000 N95 masks, a million procedure masks, 15 million gloves and one million isolation gowns.

Many of those important pieces of PPE expired and ended up in the garbage.

In September 2016, Eastern Health decided to stop renting space, and use up what supplies it could.

"It was determined that the volume of product in inventory could not be consumed under regular usage and, as such, expired," Eastern Health spokesperson Allison Barter wrote in an email to CBC.

The expired gear was thrown out, but the health authority didn't buy new supplies to replace it, and saved money by no longer renting the warehouse space.

PC Leader Ches Crosbie says government didn't follow a 2007 pandemic plan when it scrapped stockpiles of personal protective equipment. (CBC)

Ches Crosbie, the leader of the PC Opposition, said the province has a pandemic plan from 2007 that requires maintaining strategic stockpiles of necessary equipment.

"It seems that we had stockpiles for a pandemic that didn't happen and now we don't have stockpiles for a pandemic that did happen."

'Need to get that balance right': Haggie

Health Minister John Haggie said the warehouse, which was half-empty, was closed down "as part of a measure to reduce Eastern Health's footprint."

Haggie said the decision to shut down the warehouse was made before 2016.

The province has relied on private businesses to help supply protective equipment, like face shields made by St. John's company PolyUnity. (Submitted by Doug Angel)

"As I understand it from a period of 2009 to early 2015, and I'm not quite sure who or at what stage Eastern Health decide to close that element of the warehouse but it certainly wasn't there when we took office," said Haggie said.

The Liberals formed a majority government in the Nov. 30, 2015 general election. Haggie has been health minister since Premier Dwight Ball's first cabinet. 

Haggie said he can't speak to why supplies were re-purchased in 2009 or 2010, when some started to expire.

He said there are absolutely lessons to take away from coronavirus and one of those is stockpiling supplies again, when that is possible. 

"The question is how much of a stockpile, how much of a surge capacity should we build into the supply chain … So we need to get that balance right," Haggie said.  

"Quite frankly I would prefer to erred on the side of having someone wasting it than not having enough." 

In response to questions from reporters at Tuesday's COVID-19 briefing, Ball said the manufacturing of personal protective equipment within Canada will be a top priority as well. Asked if he regretted not having a stockpile prepared during his years as premier, Ball didn't answer directly, but said the stock should have been used before their expiry dates and replenished with new materials.

"It's important now that the lesson we learned coming into this is that we make sure that we can maintain a good supply of PPE, because recognizing there is going to be a demand on PPE, just not for public health but for many private sector groups as well. We're seeing PPE used in fish processing plants, as an example, this year where last year would not have been," Ball said. 

Nurses' Union president Debbie Forward says having access to a warehouse of pandemic supplies would ease the stress of front-line workers, who don't always have access to the level of gear needed to keep them safe. (CBC)

Stress has landed on nurses

Haggie has previously pleaded with front-line staff to use masks only when they're absolutely needed.

"I urge all of you, at home, or on the front line, to be conscious of the need to be careful with its appropriate use," he said in early April.

That's led to extra stress on nurses. 

Debbie Forward, president of the Registered Nurses' Union of Newfoundland and Labrador, said a lot of that stress could have been avoided if the province hadn't scrapped its stockpiles.

"Because they didn't replenish that supply, we're now in the situation that we're in today, where they're having to look at fallback plans should we run out of things such as N95 masks, surgical masks, gloves and gowns, all of those things," said Forward.

She said the province saved some money by shutting down the warehouses but is now paying dearly as prices rise.

"We didn't plan, we didn't prepare. We didn't see fit to keep that warehouse, pay that rent, or whatever it was. When masks expired, we didn't replace them," she said.

"I don't know if we just crossed our fingers and hoped it would never happen again, but obviously that plan hasn't worked out so well."

Expired Labrador stockpile still in warehouse

Meanwhile, other areas of the province had their own stockpiles.

Central Health had a similar warehouse, that is still in use, but with fewer supplies than it used to hold.

"The pandemic supplies were placed in circulation for regular usage and products were consumed accordingly. Items that may have expired over the 10 years were disposed of," Gayle St. Croix, the health authority's director of communications, wrote to CBC in an email.

At the end of last year, she said, there was $82,000 worth of supplies, but didn't provide a breakdown of the quantity of supplies left.

One of the biggest struggles in the pandemic for the province has been getting enough PPE.

Even with a low number of COVID-19 cases requiring hospitalization, PPE is being used at six times the regular rate.

Without a warehouse supply to rely on, the province has turned to industry, asking private businesses to donate masks and other supplies.

It's found a local company to manufacture gowns, and another is helping to make face shields.

In Labrador, the expired masks were not thrown out.

A spokesperson confirmed there are 103,700 surgical and procedural masks and 111,960 expired N95 masks sitting in a warehouse.

A study done by the Centers for Disease Control in the U.S. found that only a small percentage of expired masks no longer met specifications.

Samples of the masks being stored in Labrador are being sent out for testing now.

Forward said if the tests show they're OK, they'll be used as a backup in case supplies run out.

Crosbie said it's clear the Liberal government didn't properly manage the supply.

"If they chose not to replenish the stockpile, then they've been caught, we've all been caught with our pants down," he said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Cowan

CBC News

Peter Cowan is a St. John's-based reporter with CBC News.

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