Government expanding COVID-19 testing capacity and purchase of medical equipment, says federal health minister
Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said officials have tested more than 50,000 Canadians so far
Health Minister Patty Hajdu says the federal government is undertaking a massive effort to expand testing capacity and secure medical equipment so that health-care providers have the supplies they need to handle the rising number of COVID-19 cases.
The effort includes approving new testing methods and purchasing additional test kits, ventilators and personal protective equipment, such as masks and gowns.
"We've been working around the clock with provinces and territories to make sure that everyone has what they need to detect and interrupt the chain of transmission," Hajdu told a news conference Wednesday.
Hajdu signed an "interim order" that allows faster importation and sale of medical devices, including COVID-19 test kits, and approved two new diagnostic tests that should allow provinces to test for new cases more widely.
The health minister's comments came after the World Health Organization's director general called on countries to increase their testing.
"You cannot fight a fire blindfolded. And we cannot stop this pandemic if we don't know who is infected," said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday.
"We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test. Test every suspected case."
Chief Public Health Officer Teresa Tam said that officials have tested more than 50,000 Canadians since the beginning of the outbreak and the federal government has over 800,000 swabs ready for use in test kits.
"Eight hundred thousand swabs goes some ways, but it doesn't mean we can stop," said Tam. "We must keep getting more on an ongoing basis."
Watch: Canada's health minister explains the global effort to combat COVID-19
Frontline veterans of infectious disease medicine say Canada's sickest COVID-19 patients may face three tightly connected shortages as the infection spreads: of intensive care space, ventilators and healthy hospital staff.
Thomas Piraino, a Toronto respiratory therapist who worked through the 2003 SARS epidemic, said in an interview Tuesday his primary concern is whether enough intensive care beds will be available.
"We'll need good use of space," Piraino said, noting intensive care beds are often up to 85 or 90 per cent occupied even in the absence of a global pandemic.
If the country reaches the point where tens of thousands of people are infected at one time, Piraino said, it could start to cause strain on the system.
As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 600 people in Canada had tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Another key problem area could be access to ventilators and the equipment that goes with them, said Frank Fiorenza, a respiratory therapist at Ottawa General who is also the product development manager for McArthur Medical Sales, a supplier of medical equipment. The medical machines are used to help those hit hard by COVID-19 to keep breathing.
He suggests the federal government should move swiftly to procure a special order for the mechanical breathing machines, based on the provinces' requests for additional gear.
Industry 'retooling' to make critical medical equipment: health minister
Hajdu said that ventilators and other medical equipment are being ordered by Ottawa.
"We're working through Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada and the minister of Public Services and Procurement to put in large, large orders," said Hajdu.
"We know that even though the provinces and territories have indicated what they think they might need, in fact, we may need more."
Part of that effort is a call-out the government released last week on its Buy and Sell website, which handles procurement. It's asking companies to let it know if they could supply products like N95 masks and surgical masks, nitrile gloves, vinyl gloves, gowns and bottles of hand sanitizer.
Hajdu said a number of companies have indicated they have the ability to "re-tool" to make products that may be needed in the future.
Tam said that while there is no current shortage of ventilators federal officials are trying to prevent a shortage.
Watch: Dr. Tam outlines what's being done to secure critical medical equipment
Tam added that there are enough supplies now to meet 75 per cent of the stated need for personal protective equipment.
"We're pulling all stops to locate any other supplies, suppliers, bulk purchasing and any other means," said Tam.
Tam warned that the health care system needs to be prepared for a second wave of the virus, even if ongoing efforts at social distancing are successful.
"This virus is going to be with us for some time," Tam said. "Even if we flatten this wave, we need to keep going so that when the next winter comes along, hopefully we've learned an incredible amount in the next several months for us to prepare for any potential resurgence."
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With files from the Canadian Press