Debate on expired masks erupts into shouting at Sask. Legislature

The Saskatchewan health minister said it almost sounds like the NDP was disappointed the pandemic didn't hit the province harder, sparking outrage from the Opposition benches.

Health minister says it almost sounds like the NDP was disappointed the pandemic didn't hit harder

The provincial government says in 2014, N95 masks had expired and were disposed of. (CBC/Radio-Canada)

It started with the NDP asking the Sask. Party government about expired medical masks during Question Period, but the exchange erupted into shouting. 

That was July 2 in the legislature.

What fueled the New Democrats' questions was a Freedom of Information request around a disposal of expired pandemic supplies at the Regina General Hospital in 2014.

The FOI documents showed about 300,000 medical supply items were disposed — including more than 160,000 N95 masks. 

Health critic Vickie Mowat said it was part of the government's Lean exercise — the efficiency program brought to the health care system via consultant John Black.

"They paid U.S. consultant John Black tens of millions of dollars to coach health care professionals in the life-changing magic of throwing away health supplies that are vital to our province's pandemic stockpile, Mowatt said.

"These inventory reduction initiatives hurt our pandemic preparedness."

Health Minister Jim Reiter said that before the health authorities were amalgamated across the province, there were a number of pandemic supplies that  were disposed of when they expired.

However, that happened a number of years ago, long before the current pandemic started, he said.

Things really got heated, however, when Reiter hit back at the NDP.

"It almost seems like the members opposite are disappointed that COVID didn't hit Saskatchewan harder," he said. 

The Legislature erupted in shouting and NDP leader Ryan Meili could be heard saying "That is so offensive."

Mowat continued to press Reiter on the mask disposal.

"The fact is, it's this government's responsibility to replace and manage health supplies, not to spark joy by turning full warehouses into empty ones," she said.

N95 respiration masks can be used after their expiration dates in some cases, the Center for Disease Control said during the pandemic. (Nicholas Pfosi/Reuters)

Question period calmed after the discussion and moved towards rent deferrals and moratorium on evictions. 

Near the end of Question Period, NDP's Cathy Sproule asked for a point of order. Sproule said Reiter used language that was offensive, provocative or threatening when saying the NDP were disappointed the pandemic was not worse in Saskatchewan. 

Paul Merriman stood on the Sask. Party side and said he didn't hear anything that was unparliamentary. 

"We certainly got rather personal," House Speaker Mark Docherty said. "I know that it's the second-last day. We're getting dangerously close if not right onto the line on a number of occasions," 

Docherty left the point of order and moved along. 

Reiter would choose different words, NDP asks for apology

"It got very heated in there and a lot of heckling," Reiter said after the Legislature sitting. "I don't know what I said but I probably overstated that."

"The debate on the PPE is simply, they keep bringing out issues that never happened," Reiter said. "But it did, it got too heated." 

Reiter said as the session has gone on, the debates have gotten more heated. He said if he chose his words poorly during the debate.

Reiter said in the future they can have better disposal mask replacements but the 2014 purge was before the health authority amalgamation and they are continuing to improve their processes. 

Mowat insisted, however, that the purge in 2014 hurt the province during the 2020 pandemic. 

"We've been hearing from so many front-line health care workers since the pandemic began, that are saying exactly this, that there was a shortage," Mowat said. 

"They're not even in a position where they're acknowledging that we have these shortages so I think the whole approach of trying to downplay the situation has been completely unacceptable." 

Mowat told reporters after Question Period that Meili had a good character and said Reiter should apologize for his comment that the NDP hoped the pandemic would hit harder than it had.