Ottawa Hospital rationing surgical masks to avoid shortage

The Ottawa Hospital is asking staff to limit themselves to two surgical masks per shift as it prepares for an anticipated influx of patients with COVID-19.

Doctors, nurses, orderlies limited to 2 disposable masks per shift

Staff at The Ottawa Hospital are being asked to limit their use of disposable surgical masks like this one to two per shift. Staff who deal with patients who have or are suspected to have COVID-19 wear different personal protective equipment. (iStock)

The Ottawa Hospital is asking staff to limit themselves to two surgical masks per shift as it prepares for an anticipated influx of patients with COVID-19.

In a memo sent to all hospital staff Wednesday evening, CEO Jack Kitts said the new policy follows discussions with the Ontario government and other hospitals in the province.

"Our review was guided by the principle that changes must consider the impact on staff safety, and the judicious use of masks to reduce the possibility of undersupply later, when risk becomes more widespread and higher," Kitts wrote.

The disposable face masks that are being rationed offer the wearer some limited protection against airborne particles that can carry the novel coronavirus. They're normally discarded after a single use.

'We will have to adapt'

Kitts said the policy doesn't apply to staff who treat suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients. Those workers wear full gowns, gloves, N95 masks and face shields, all of which must be discarded after a single use.

"This change is intended to reduce the risk to all health care workers posed by the general population," he wrote in the memo. "As this outbreak evolves risks will change, and we will have to adapt."

Dr. Jack Kitts sent the all-staff memo Wednesday. (Hillary Johnstone/CBC News)

In a separate statement Thursday, The Ottawa Hospital said it's following the guidance of local and national public health authorities, the Ministry of Health and its own infection prevention and control team.

"We understand that in some circumstances, staff will require more than 2 masks per shift. We have been providing regular updates to staff, and will continue to do so," the hospital wrote.

Mixed message, ONA says

The Ontario Nurses' Association (ONA) has been lobbying for greater access to personal protective equipment (PPE) for its members, regardless of where they work.

Local ONA president Rachel Muir worries The Ottawa Hospital's new policy could prevent nurses from fully protecting themselves on the job.

"What we are advocating for is the precautionary principle, that every nurse use their clinical and nursing judgment to assess each patient," Muir said. "If it's a [nurse's] opinion that more PPE is required, she should have access to that."

Muir said Kitts's memo sends a mixed message about potential shortages.

"On recently as Wednesday we're told there are stocks available, and now they're telling us two masks per shift. This is the sort of thing that is causing fear and confusion," she said.

QCH raising money for supplies

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said any decisions to ration PPE are being made by hospitals, not mandated by the government.

"The hospitals are making the decisions with respect to what their frontline health-care workers need. We are continuing to send supplies to them," Elliott said Thursday.

The Ottawa Hospital's director of emergency management, Dr. Andrew Wilmore, said there have been large donations of personal protective equipment from the community. Anyone looking to donate PPE can contact the hospital at a special email address

On Thursday, Ottawa's Queensway Carleton Hospital launched a donation drive to purchase more PPE.

In a video, an unnamed doctor says: "We are soon to run out of supplies that will keep us going and help us care for you and your loved ones."

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.