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Renfrew paramedics 'shocked' after discovering non-medical masks in supply

When a County of Renfrew paramedic discovered an open box of surgical masks labelled "not for medical use," it touched off an investigation that's led to mass testing, contact tracing and questions about the safety of the mask supply for paramedics in Renfrew and beyond. 

Union asks for services across Ontario to check their own equipment

The County of Renfrew Paramedic Service is investigating after a box of surgical masks they were given to protect against COVID-19 was labelled 'not for medical use.' (Renfrew Paramedics social media page)

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  • On Thursday, the province said the masks did not come from its own emergency stockpile.

When a County of Renfrew paramedic discovered an open box of surgical masks labelled "not for medical use," it touched off an investigation that's led to mass testing, contact tracing and questions about the safety of the mask supply for paramedics in eastern Ontario and beyond.

Now Ontario Health has been asked to investigate, and the local paramedics' union is calling on services across the province to check their own supply.

"Our members were shocked," said Brent Daechsel, a veteran paramedic and interim president of the union local for the County of Renfrew Paramedic Service.

"We're putting ourselves out there for the general public and the community we serve," said Daechsel. "And the fear is, is this going to happen again?"

All paramedics tested for COVID-19

The masks were in circulation among paramedics between May 28 and June 5, and now the roughly 150 members that make up the service are being tested this week for COVID-19 out of "an abundance of caution,"  paramedic Chief Mike Nolan said.

The paramedic service has also started contract tracing back to patients, Nolan said, at the same time.  

He said half a dozen paramedics went into either self-isolation or "working" isolation while they keep taking calls. That ended Wednesday, Nolan said. The testing is not complete, but to date, no patients or members of the paramedic service have tested positive, Nolan said.  A note sent to members from the county's human resources department said the local medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Cushman, had confirmed the region's infection risk was low.

Brent Daechsel said members of the paramedic service were 'shocked' when the box was found among their mask supply. Every staff member is now getting tested for COVID-19. (Courtesy of Brent Daechsel)

Union to Ontario paramedics: check your supply

Still, the incident has raised concerns about the supply chain available to front-line paramedics and whether there will be a reliable, safe supply of equipment ahead of a potential second wave of the pandemic.

Jason Fraser, who heads the CUPE Ambulance Committee of Ontario (CACO), which represents about 5,500 paramedics in the province, said the union sent out a note Wednesday warning their members to begin auditing their own supplies.

Fraser said he wants to know from the province how the poor-quality masks got into the supply chain, and whether the problem is widespread. 

According to Nolan, the current supply of masks comes from both the province's emergency stockpile as well as a variety of other sources regulated by the province, since access to the Ontario supply has been inconsistent throughout the pandemic.

Masks an ongoing concern

Renfrew public health officials have asked Ontario Health to identify where the non-medical grade masks came from and assess their safety. 

When reached Wednesday, a spokesperson for the province's Health Ministry said they could not share any additional information about the incident in time for publication.

Masks have been an ongoing concern for paramedics, who had for years been told to use the gold-standard N95 masks during any calls that involve a risk of infection.

But that mandate changed in Ontario during the pandemic due to a shortage of those masks. Paramedics have now been told to first use medically certified surgical masks during calls, and only pull out their N95 masks if they're involved in a procedure that could put them at risk of contracting COVID-19. 

With that supply of surgical masks now called into question, County of Renfrew paramedics are now using the N95 on all calls "until the whole thing is sorted," according to Nolan. 

WATCH: Guidance on which masks to use is 'confusing at best,' paramedic chief says

Michael Nolan, chief of the Renfrew Paramedic Service, says a member of staff recently discovered a box of masks — meant to protect paramedics from COVID-19 — labelled “not for medical use,” leading to concern about the quality of protective equipment in the supply chain. 1:08

'Not looking for blame'

During his own audit of his service's surgical mask supply, Nolan said two of the five types of masks are labelled not for medical use, while two have no labelling about medical use at all. 

The fifth type, received through the province's stockpile, is marked medical grade but has been taken out of circulation because the masks have been falling off the faces of paramedics in the middle of calls, Nolan said. 

He said he's notified other paramedic services about the Renfrew experience and shared their findings, and he's now suggesting services audit their own stock.

"We're not looking for blame," said Nolan. "We're looking for an opportunity to improve."

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