Nfld. & Labrador

These business leaders are tracking down PPE for health-care workers

Task Force NL is sourcing extra masks, gowns and gloves for the health-care sector's front line.

Task Force NL sourcing extra masks, gowns and gloves for the health-care sector's front line

Cathy Bennett, team leader of Task Force NL, says the group knows how to get high-quality products to the province quickly. (Heather Gillis/CBC)

With demand spiking for personal protective equipment, a group of business and volunteer leaders have joined forces to find more for the health-care system.

Cathy Bennett, team leader of Task Force NL, says her group is composed of 75 experienced private-sector volunteers who know how to get high-quality products to the province quickly, and they're hunting for masks, face shields, gloves and gowns.

"We're using some of their networks to be able to go out to their suppliers and augment the supply that the health-care system has been able to achieve," said Bennett, a former provincial finance minister.

The group started two weeks ago, and Bennett says they've already delivered more than half a million items.

She said members of the group from the natural resource sector are familiar with the importance of quality personal protective equipment, and spearheaded the delivery of 20,000 N95 masks from Tacora Resources, a mining company in Labrador West.

At Friday's daily COVID-19 briefing, Health Minister John Haggie said the province's stock of protective equipment is a source of concern. He said there is seven to 10 days' worth of supply in the province at current usage rates, but the province is expecting deliveries today and through the weekend. 

"We are all right for the coming week, and we are working very hard to make sure we stay all right beyond that," said Haggie.

Manufacturing equipment

About 10 days ago, said Bennett, the group also started working to manufacture protective equipment that meets Canada Standards Association guidelines.

"We've been able to come up with some ideas of how we were going to make surgical masks in Newfoundland with medical grade material," she said, adding they're also working on protective face shields and two types of hospital gowns.

Task Force NL is sourcing extra personal protective equipment, such as this N95 face mask. File photo. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Bennett said they're also helping manufacturers pivot to make different products and find financing. 

The most important thing, Bennett said, is ensuring the designs they're considering are safe. 

"We're working hard to build the capacity in our manufacturing area to be able to provide the quality CSA standards for these PPE materials."

Differing standards

Haggie said it's difficult to say when locally produced equipment will be in the hands of health-care workers, as standards differ for each piece of protective equipment.

While gowns, for example, are relatively straightforward, he said, once a certain standard of fabric is produced, masks are more challenging to make.

"It's interesting how complicated a surgical mask or an N95 mask can be," said Haggie, who said the materials to produce N95 masks are not made in Canada, and are available at only a few locations in the United States. 

That's why researchers in engineering faculties across the country are trying to find alternatives, he said.

"They're building a supply chain from nothing," he said. "Everybody understands the urgency of this."

Sourcing raw materials

Bennett said her group has also helped other companies find raw materials, including helping the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corporation source product as it has begun making an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. 

She said they're also working with PolyUnity, a medical startup, to use 3D printers to make face masks. Bennett said they've also been working with the craft council to learn more about the province's resources, talent and skills.

Bennett says she's grateful to be a part of Task Force NL to try to make a difference in a challenging time.

"It's really, really satisfying," she said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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