Politics

Idled industrial plants seen as an untapped source of protective equipment for health workers

A grassroots lobby made up of family members of frontline health care workers in Quebec is driving a campaign to get protective equipment from idled industrial plants into hospitals coping with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Families of health workers in Quebec driving grassroots campaign to get pandemic equipment to hospitals

A hospital worker wearing a face shield and mask is seen at a COVID-19 assessment centre for staff at Lions Gate Hospital, in North Vancouver, on Thursday, March 19, 2020. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Guillaume Tardif, a soon-to-be-retired army tank officer, quietly but frantically combed the internet in January as coronavirus reports coming out of Wuhan, China became more alarming.

Even then, he was convinced a viral storm was approaching and was determined to do everything possible to protect his wife, a Montreal emergency room physician — up to and including the purchase of reusable face masks.

Tardif, a captain who served in Afghanistan, has been at the forefront of an unusual grassroots campaign in Quebec — driven by the families of frightened health care workers — to mobilize the provincial and federal governments to requisition industrially-certified respirators from idled industries and suppliers.

He spent over $800 out of his own pocket to equip his wife with personal protective equipment (PPE) for the daily battle against coronavirus.

Guillaume Tardif has been scrambling to find protective equipment for the hospital where his wife works: "She's the mother of my children and I'm going to make sure that I do everything possible for her to come home every night and us to get through this." (Guillaume Tardif)

"She's the love of my life," Tardif said in an interview. "She's the mother of my children and I'm going to make sure that I do everything possible for her to come home every night and us to get through this."

(Staff at the hospital where his spouse works have been warned not to talk to the media and CBC News has agreed not to publish Tardif's wife name, or the name of the facility where she works.)

Tapping into industrial supplies

Other families in the medical community have followed Tardif's lead by buying up large stocks of industrial masks and respirators locally, and donating them.

Earlier this week, the federal government announced an ambitious $2 billion plan to swiftly increase the stock of personal protective equipment for frontline health-care workers caring for critically-ill and dying patients.

Quebec Premier François Legault said Tuesday the province has three to four days before it runs out of some personal protective equipment (PPE), but that the province has orders that are expected to arrive in the coming days. The province went through a year's worth of PPE in a matter of weeks because of the surge in COVID-19 cases.

The question of whether the federal stockpile of equipment is adequate has been on federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu's mind.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu says that successive federal governments have for decades underfunded public health preparedness, resulting in an insufficient amount of personal protective equipment in the federal pandemic stockpile. 1:58

"No we likely do not have enough," she told the daily media briefing Wednesday. "I think federal governments for decades have been underfunding things like public health preparedness and I would say that obviously governments all across the world are in the same exact situation."

In all likelihood, it will be weeks before suppliers, old and new, can ramp up production of vital equipment such as medically-certified N95 masks, which many doctors and nurses throughout the country are being forced to ration and reuse.

Tardif argues there is a large alternative supply of identical industrial-grade masks and respirators that can be requisitioned by the federal government and the provinces in the meantime.

"We need to take every chance to avoid running out of PPE and in my opinion that involves requisitioning every device that's out there," he said.

It's a good idea, says doctor

Dr. Andrew Willmore, medical director of emergency management at the Ottawa Hospital, said having the provinces or the federal government coordinate the collection of industrial protective equipment is a very good idea.

"I think it's absolutely useful," Willmore said. "I think it's a very important role, both federal and provincial, to be able to enact the appropriate legislative measures by which they can really dig down into industry and create a pool of resources that can be distributed equitably in a way that supports the health care system as a whole."

Both 3M, the manufacturer of the N95, and Health Canada have said industrial masks — the kind used in construction, factories and paint shops, where fumes are a problem — are a suitable emergency substitute.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday that major shipments of protective equipment, including millions of masks, have started to arrive — one shipment landed on Wednesday — and federal officials are in the process of conducting inventory and getting the equipment out to the provinces.

"We will be there to support the provinces and territories with whatever they need," he said during his daily media briefing. "This includes sending personal protective equipment and other supports for the health care system."

The shortage of protective equipment for hospital staff was to be the subject of a teleconference between Trudeau and the premiers Thursday night.

Willmore said the Ottawa Hospital has reached out to some local businesses in the hopes of laying its hands on an industrial supply.

In other parts of the country, major industrial concerns have stepped forward. Honda Canada donated 1,200 masks to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Barrie, Ont., and a further 1,000 and 40,000 pairs of gloves to the Stevenson Memorial Hospital in Alliston, Ont.

'A single point of failure'

Tardif said his research suggests that's a fraction of the industrial stock across the country and it's the federal government's responsibility to step in and coordinate a nationwide drive.

Shortages of protective equipment for health care staff in a pandemic create "a single point of failure" for the whole system because it either puts doctors, nurses and technicians in danger or leaves them unable to provide care, Willmore said, adding that "the highest levels of government" need to engage with the problem.

It has been suggested that giving health care staff reusable respirators, such as the 3M-manufactured 6000, would help cut down on the use of disposable masks.

Willmore said that depends on the environment and the patient being treated, noting that there's a danger involved in overusing some equipment. Cost and availability are other factors.

"These are expensive pieces of equipment and they're difficult to source, especially since there's been a pull to purchase such equipment," he said. "It's certainly effective but there are practical limitations."

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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