40 flights carrying personal protective equipment have arrived in Canada, Trudeau says

More than 40 flights carrying personal protective equipment have arrived in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday, as countries around the world engage in a mad scramble to procure the critical items.

Of 29,570 ventilators ordered, only 203 had been received as of May 19

A B.C. Ambulance Service paramedic wearing a face shield, an N95 mask and gloves is seen in the ambulance bay outside the emergency department at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, B.C., on April 12, 2020. The federal government updated Canadians on Tuesday on the results of the mad scramble to procure personal protective equipment. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

More than 40 flights carrying personal protective equipment have arrived in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today, as countries around the world engage in a mad scramble to procure the critical items.

Demand is expected to grow as more people return to work and as public health officials prepare for a potential second wave of COVID-19 infections.

During his daily news conference, Trudeau said the government has also formally signed an agreement with GM to produce 10 million face masks at its plant in Oshawa, Ont.

Canada is competing globally for supplies of equipment such as masks, gowns and hand sanitizer, while at the same time trying to increase capacity at home to make it.

Anita Anand, the federal minister in charge of procuring that gear, said millions more masks, gloves, gowns and litres of hand sanitizer are on the way from abroad.

"With every order and every delivery, challenges remain to be overcome," Anand said.

"At this point we anticipate demand to continue to accelerate in Canada and around the world."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with reporters including the CBC's Tom Parry on Tuesday. 2:50

As of May 19, data posted by Public Services and Procurement Canada showed only a fraction of the millions of gloves, masks, face shields, ventilators and litres of hand sanitizer ordered by the federal government had so far been received.

For example, of 29,570 ventilators ordered, only 203 had been received.

Like every other nation, Canada has been trying to secure supplies of the N95 respirator mask that's the standard-issue covering for the heath care profession. Upwards of 104 million have been ordered by the federal government but slightly less than 12 million have been received — and of those, 9.8 million didn't meet Canadian standards.

The equipment has been in high demand worldwide, with every country competing for scarce supplies from a limited number of suppliers, most of them in China. In what's been described as a "wild west" battle, some confirmed orders have been snatched out from under Canada's nose by other countries willing to pay more.

Even so, officials argue that the federal government has so far been able to deliver everything that the provinces and territories have requested.

Demand likely to rise

However, the demand is expected to go up now that provinces are easing up on the restrictions imposed in mid-March to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains announced today a dozen new contracts with Canadian companies to produce the supplies needed to test for current infections and past ones, as well as to develop new testing methods.

Expanding testing capacity is a key element of the various provincial plans to ease up on physical distancing requirements designed to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Trudeau said that once there's a test widely available to see who has had COVID-19, he'll take it.

Trudeau was exposed to the novel coronavirus earlier this year through his wife, who likely contracted it during a trip to England, but the prime minister never showed any symptoms.

He was never tested himself; at the time, testing was limited to those who were symptomatic.

But testing is slowly becoming available now that can detect whether a person has had COVID-19 previously by looking for signs of antibodies against the virus in the blood.

"Serological testing is an important part of understanding exactly how COVID-19 has been present in the country, including in people who haven't displayed any symptoms at all," Trudeau said.

"As soon as those tests become more largely available to Canadians, I will certainly ensure that I am one of them."

The federal government is ramping up the ability of Canada's health care system to test for both current cases of COVID-19 and past ones.

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Monday that the first wave of the pandemic never did exceed the capacity of Canada's health system.

But she warned a second wave could be on the way and Canada must be prepared for that.

Space in intensive care units needs to be guarded and infection control measures improved in high-risk settings like shelters, corrections facilities and long-term care homes.

"I think you can never be overly prepared and that we need to just keep going with some of these capacity developments," she said.

The government is purchasing supplies from traditional manufacturers and from Canadian companies that have pivoted from their usual lines of business to assist in the production of COVID-19-related material.

Officials say thousands of domestic companies have stepped up.

Among them is General Motors, which is using its plants to help make masks.

'Going to need a lot more'

A company vice-president told a House of Commons committee that the non-traditional suppliers can only be part of the solution.

David Paterson said he's seen estimates, for example, that say some three billion face masks will be needed in Canada.

"We're going to be making about 10 million of those, but we're going to need a lot more from different sourcing areas."

In addition to the N95s, Public Services and Procurement Canada has ordered more than 333 million surgical masks and had received slightly more than 79 million as of last week.

It has also ordered 55.6 million face shields, which skate-maker Bauer is now helping to produce in Canada, and had received 6.6 million.

With files from CBC News

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