Windsor·Exclusive

Hospital procures half a million N95 masks from China in 'wild west' style deal

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, with supply chains strangled, Windsor Regional Hospital CEO David Musyj says attempts to secure N95 masks on the global market felt like a 'drug deal.'

'One of the most unbelievable experiences of a lifetime' says Hospital CEO David Musyj

Windsor Regional Hospital borrowed $5 million to buy masks similar to this one from a Chinese firm. (CBC/Radio-Canada)

Windsor Regional Hospital has procured half a million surgical grade N95 masks in a "wild west style" deal CEO David Musyj and manager of supply chain operations for Transform, Katelyn Dryden say had them working at all hours of the night for weeks on end.

"If this doesn't feel like being drug dealers I don't know what does," said Musyj. "We met some very interesting individuals."

Musyj says that while the surge of COVID-19 cases could have been much worse, he's sleeping better at night knowing the hospital now has a supply of the masks that should last a year at the current rate they are using them.

He says the odyssey began in February when he and Dryden attempted to procure N95 masks through a variety of international sources.

Windsor Regional Hospital CEO David Musyj says he's sleeping better at night knowing the hospital now has a supply of N95 masks that should last a year at the current rate of use. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

"We got a lot of different contacts from all over the world wanting to sell us product but as we started investigating either the price was ridiculous, the product wasn't what we were looking for and/or we had some concerns with respect to the reliability with who we were dealing with," said Musyj

Musyj says in March after exhaustive searches turned to dead ends, a health care professional friend who wants to remain anonymous told him about a man who was dating a cousin of his in Shanghai, China.

The man, who was already working in procurement for retail stores, had to have $5 million up front to prove he had the money before any suppliers would give him the time of day.

"He would say that often there were lines outside the factory, a large group of people just waiting for stock to be released," said Dryden.

If this doesn't feel like being drug dealers, I don't know what does.- David Musyj, CEO, Windsor Regional Hospital

In March, Musyj went to the board of Windsor Regional Hospital and in an in-camera meeting laid the situation out, explaining it was a gamble but one they had to take to procure the necessary masks.

"I said to the board, 'We're either going to procure these masks for the benefit of our staff or you're going to fire me,'" said Musyj.

The board agreed, the hospital got a loan from a bank, and money was wired to the Chinese connection. But even then it wasn't a done deal. Musyj says just when the Chinese connection would think he had a deal it would fall through. Sometimes he would discover a person at a company he was dealing with was trying to sell stolen masks. Other times he would simply be outbid by another buyer.

"And that is what bumped us down even further mainly because large organizations, large health agencies in New York, we can't compete against their volumes so that definitely did make it quite challenging for sure," said Dryden.

Katelyn Dryden is manager of supply chain operations at Transform Shared Service Organization, a supply chain company working with local hospitals. (Simon Rice/CBC)

"We are a mosquito on the world scale when it comes to purchasing," said Musyj, adding the company the man in China was dealing with realized it could make more money making inferior masks for the domestic market than better ones for export.

Musyj's Chinese connection eventually had to travel to Guangzhou, China to work with another company. Musyj said the Chinese government kept changing the rules governing procurement of the items, at one point demanding a letter from the federal government proving they were buying for a hospital.

"[Liberal Windsor-Tecumseh MP] Irek Kusmierczyk gave us his signature on his letterhead and that worked," said Musyj.

But the man was trying to buy quantities that were too small. Musyj eventually made a connection that would bring his global efforts closer to home. He happened to be talking to a lawyer in Toronto, who, when he found out where the Chinese connection was, connected Musyj with an Ontario company — his client — that was also purchasing large quantities of masks at the same company.

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Musyj had his connection in China give the $5 million to the company — SteriPro — who WRH also deals with to sterlize equipment.

SteriPro then brokered the deal which resulted in the purchase of 500,000 masks. The company was able to save WRH approximately $200,000 on the deal.

"They could have sold it to pretty much anyone in the world and they agreed to sell them to us," said Musyj.

The first 60,000 masks arrived in Toronto Tuesday, were shipped to Chatham the next day where Dryden picked up 4,000 and drove them to WRH.

The first shipment of masks from China arrived earlier this week. (Windsor Regional Hospital)

Staff at the hospital are trying them out but so far they're working.

"It's a good fit and it's comfortable and the initial reaction is it's a pretty darn good mask," said Musyj, adding that this is a wake up call that the masks need to be produced in Ontario.

"We've got the pulp so lets make the masks," said Musyj.

Once tested, the hospital will keep 60 per cent of them and then sell the rest at a cost of $6 USD per mask to the other hospitals in the Erie St. Clair LHIN — Bluewater Health in Sarnia, the Chatham-Kent Health Alliance, Erie Shores Healthcare and Hotel-Dieu Grace Healthcare.

All the masks should be in Windsor by the end of the month.

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this story reported masks were being sold to area hospitals for $6 CAD. In fact they are being sold for $6 USD.
    May 15, 2020 2:08 PM ET

About the Author

Dale Molnar

Video Journalist

Dale Molnar is an award-winning video journalist at CBC Windsor. He is a graduate of the University of Windsor and has worked in television, radio and print.

With files from Simon Rice

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