Mask shortage sidelining some Ottawa paramedics

Some 30 Ottawa paramedics have been moved off of front-line duties because their employer has run out of the N95 masks that properly fit their faces.

Some 30 paramedics can't get access to masks that fit their faces

Jason Fraser, chair of the Ambulance Committee of Ontario for CUPE, is calling on the provincial government to make sure there is an adequate supply of personal protective equipment available for paramedics. 0:48

Some 30 Ottawa paramedics have been removed from front-line duties because their employer has run out of the N95 masks that properly fit their faces.

Soon after the arrival of COVID-19, the Ottawa Paramedic Service's mask usage shot up and they found themselves completely out of the 3M 1870+, one type of N95 mask paramedics had access to before the pandemic, a source within the service told CBC.

The other N95 mask used by the service, the 3M 1805, doesn't seal properly for some paramedics who have smaller heads or narrower faces.

Those paramedics who relied on the 3M 1870+ began being redeployed in mid-May, the source said, with some now driving rental cars to ferry water to their colleagues on the front lines in an attempt to keep them hydrated.

Others have been essentially  sidelined, collecting paycheques for roughly two months without any work to do, according to the source.

Masks produced in 'limited amounts'

There have been reports of global shortages of N95 masks, said to offer better protection against COVID-19 than cloth or paper masks, since the pandemic began.

That's forced provinces and health services to scramble to find them.

Most of the Ottawa Paramedic Service's roughly 700 paramedics can fit the still-in-stock 3M 1805 mask, said Anthony Di Monte, general manager of emergency and protective services for the City of Ottawa.

However, supply issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic led to a shortage of the more specialized 3M 1870+, Di Monte told reporters Friday afternoon.

"It's like, if you have size 14 feet, [it's] difficult to find those types of shoes. The same thing for these masks. They're normally produced in limited amounts," Di Monte said. "And so that's what's happening right now. We don't have them."

Due to COVID-19 shortages, the Ottawa Paramedic Service has run out of the masks that fit the faces of roughly 30 of their paramedics. (Ottawa Paramedic Service/Twitter)

The paramedic service has been working with both Ontario's Ministry of Health and the Champlain Local Health Integration Network to obtain N95 masks that fit properly, according to a statement from acting chief Peter Kelly.

"These specific masks continue to be on backorder and are not available from [their] stockpile inventory," Kelly wrote.

As for the paramedics who've been removed from critical care duty, Kelly said the service has been trying to get them access to a third type of mask called the 3M 7500.

"[We] will shortly be fit testing them to a new respiratory protection mask so that they can safely return to their primary duties," he wrote.

Union unimpressed

The situation doesn't sit well with the paramedics' union. 

"If we can't protect ourselves, we can't do our job, and we can't protect the public," said Jason Fraser, chair of the ambulance committee of Ontario for the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

While the City of Ottawa should be ensuring its paramedics have access to the proper masks, the responsibility ultimately falls on the province, Fraser said.

"The provincial government needs to step up and ensure that the PPE for paramedics and every front-line worker is readily available, and we shouldn't have to worry about where that next piece of equipment is coming from."

In a statement, Ministry of Health spokesperson David Jensen told CBC that the supply of N95 masks is "stabilizing," but they remain difficult to get.

With files from Adrian Harewood, Natalia Goodwin and Trevor Pritchard

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