Northern Sask. health authority warns of limited PPE for front-line workers

"[We] are deeply concerned," says the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority, which oversees care for 55,000 people.

'[We] are deeply concerned,' Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority says

The Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority says it has asked both the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health and Indigenous Services Canada for 41,000 masks and face shields, plus assorted gowns and gloves.  (The Associated Press)

The health authority representing dozens of health care centres in Saskatchewan's north is sounding the alarm bell about the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) for its front-line health care workers.

"[We] are deeply concerned that there are limited to no protective supplies for health care workers in northern Saskatchewan," the Northern Inter-Tribal Health Authority (NITHA) wrote in a news release Tuesday morning. "There is no timeline for the arrival of the orders."

The authority's comments echoed remarks made the day before by Scott Livingstone, the CEO of the larger Saskatchewan Health Authority, which oversees health care in much of the rest of the province.

Livingstone said the SHA is not burning through its own supplies right now, given the low COVID-19 hospitalization rate in the province so far. Only four people were in hospital as of Monday.

But he said supply remains a worry in the context of a potential surge of serious cases needing hospital care and that not all orders are coming in. 

Lack of consultation alleged 

The NITHA, which serves 55,000 people spread across 33 small communities, criticized the provincial government for what the NITHA called a lack of outreach about ensuring supplies made their way north.

NITHA board chair Chief Carolyn Bernard "is specifically concerned that the province has not consulted First Nations on their need for PPE in northern Saskatchewan, after Ottawa had committed $50 million to the provinces and territories in its $1-billion COVID-19 response package," according to the release.

"The impact of this disease would be devastating, and we are asking for clear communication from the provincial and federal governments that our populations in our member communities will not be left out of the process when it comes to the amount of PPE needed in northern Saskatchewan," Chief Carolyn Bernard said in the release.

Province responds 

Saskatchewan's Ministry of Health said it has collaborated with other provinces and the federal government to order supplies.

"Federal officials had expressed concerns about ensuring the needs of First Nations communities were appropriately reflected in the province's order," according to an emailed statement from the ministry on Tuesday.

The province's order list was revised to include information from the northern health authority and Indigenous Services Canada.

"The federal government is beginning to ship some items (masks, gloves), although not in the quantities ordered," the statement continued. "The items received in Saskatchewan from the federal order will be shared throughout the health system to ensure the highest priority needs of citizens across the province are met."

On Monday, the federal government appeared to be making progress toward securing a supply of medical masks. Manufacturer 3M announced it struck a deal with the U.S. government to allow the export of N95 respirator masks to Canada.

How those supplies would be allocated to provinces is unclear.

Expired equipment

NITHA said 40 per cent of its health care centres lack the necessary amount of PPE for a pandemic scenario and that much of the equipment it does have, including masks, is outdated.

The northern health authority said it made requests to both the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health and Indigenous Services Canada for 41,000 masks and face shields, plus assorted gowns and gloves. When that request was made is unclear.

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Guy Quenneville

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