Can't find a respirator mask? You're not alone
Halifax pharmacist struggling to keep N95, similar masks on shelves because of inconsistent supply
Over the last two years, mask guidance has been fluid. From no masks to cloth masks and now respirators, many people have struggled to keep up with what the federal government recommends for maximum protection against COVID-19.
When the Omicron variant hit Nova Scotia in December and cases rose, people began seeking out respirator masks like the N95, KN95 or FFP2. But shortages have made it hard for many to track these highly effective masks down.
Pharmacist Jamie Flynn, the owner of the Medicine Shoppe on Lacewood Drive in Halifax, said he is out of stock of respirator masks, and supply has been inconsistent.
"I would say a few weeks ago it was OK," Flynn said. "But more recently in the last week or two, all the places I've been looking in, my normal wholesalers have been out of stock."
Flynn said every day he has many customers come in looking for the masks, saying they've been turned away from multiple pharmacies.
"Obviously I'd like to have as many [masks] as I can … so that when anybody's looking for some, I can give them to them," Flynn said. "But unfortunately, it's not the case right now."
Amid the shortage, there is also the question of quality. Some masks marketed as respirators don't meet the standards, or are knock-offs. Flynn said independent pharmacies like his are on their own when it comes to finding good quality suppliers who have masks in stock.
Combating the shortage
One medical device manufacturer in the province is trying to help. In 2020, Mabou-based Halifax Biomedical partnered with manufacturers in Asia to bring in respirator masks for front-line workers.
The respirators are FFP2 rated, which is a recognized Health Canada equivalent to the N95 standard. Halifax Biomedical lab tests every lot that comes in to ensure they meet filtration standards.
At first, the company didn't sell them to consumers since government guidance at the time recommended cloth masks. Then Omicron hit.
"That's when we decided to try to get the supplies that we had … and get those out into the environment," said CEO Chad Munro.
Two days before Christmas, Munro and his daughters started knocking on doors.
"We physically took our inventory, put it in a truck and drove to pharmacies," he said. "And I would go in and say, 'Do you have any N95?' And most of them didn't know of any location in their town where they could find some."
Since then, 13 pharmacies have signed on, and Halifax Biomedical is looking for more retailers. Talks are ongoing with some national pharmacy chains.
Munro said his company has the capability to bring in a million masks per day.
"We're a small company, and we've brought in as much inventory as we can," he said. "But we need large supply agreements with large retailers to bring in a consistent supply."
People can also order masks directly from the company, where a box of 20 costs $25 plus shipping.
'Everybody deserves to be protected'
Many high-risk groups like elderly people, unhoused people, and disabled people have even more barriers to accessing respirator masks.
Victoria Levack, a spokesperson for the Disability Rights Coalition of Nova Scotia, said money and mobility are huge issues.
"Everybody deserves to be protected," Levack said. "Protection and health care is not just for the wealthy and the middle class."
She said $25 for a package of masks is out of reach for many people living on a pension or long-term disability.
"That's a steep price tag, a lot of people with disabilities are living month to month," she said. "These are people's lives at risk."
Levack pointed to Canada's universal health care and said the government should be subsidizing respirator masks for vulnerable groups.
"Get people what they need to protect themselves," she said.
Munro agreed, and said Halifax Biomedical is open to a partnership with the provincial government.
"Maybe they'll look at supplying to high-risk groups," Munro said.
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