Ottawa Delays in Responding to PPE Shortages Reported in February: Documents

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Officials who manage the National Strategic Emergency Stock (NESS) warned in early February that there was a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to deal with a pandemic, but it took the government weeks federal government to sign contracts for goods like the N95. respirators, masks used by healthcare professionals to protect themselves from COVID-19.CBC News has reviewed thousands of pages of documents submitted to the House of Commons Government Operations Committee, including dozens of contracts signed between Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) bureaucrats and companies offering equipment to the House of Commons. federal government.

In a PowerPoint presentation presented Feb. 13 by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) – and motivated by the early spread of the coronavirus – bureaucrats responsible for the NESS said the federal stockpile contained only “a modest supply of Personal protective equipment, including surgical masks, respirators, gloves, gowns and coveralls. ”

“We anticipate increased demand and other demands, as well as shortages, availability limitations and impacts on the global supply chain. We want to be as ready as possible to meet immediate needs, ”the presentation said.

It is not clear exactly how much equipment the national inventory had on hand in February because the charts detailing the inventory have been blacked out.

Records show that despite the February warning, the government signed a few contracts until mid-March for PPE or other equipment, such as ventilators.

In fact, the bureaucrats tasked with replacing the national stock were not given a special waiver – a national security exemption – to quickly replenish supplies through sole-source contracts until March 14.

The first orders for N95 masks were not finalized until March 18 – days after PHAC, led by Dr Theresa Tam, coordinated a nationwide shutdown as provinces issued emergency orders amid a outbreak of COVID-19 cases.

Two contracts were signed that day with unnamed companies for $ 15.2 million and $ 7.6 million for N95 respirators, so named because they are supposed to filter 95% of small particles.

PHAC has warned, however, that deliveries are not expected until at least March 30, given global demand.

A briefing note, written on March 5, warned that the sudden push to acquire more equipment had got off to a bad start, with China restricting exports and the Trump administration to the United States pressuring major manufacturers, like 3M, to get their supplies to US customers.

“Our larger suppliers are rationing the products,” PHAC bureaucrats said, adding that “the products that will be needed… face shortages and will change over time”.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu attends a press conference on Parliament Hill on June 4. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

He added: “Managing / moderating demand will be essential. ”

The slow start to PPE orders was felt at the end of April, with bureaucrats preparing a “pocket note,” a list of talking points, which Health Minister Patty Hajdu will use when discussing. ‘a call with its provincial and territorial counterparts.

The memo indicated that purchasing respirators was a “permanent challenge” and that Ottawa should “sensitize” provincial authorities to accept Chinese-made alternatives such as KN95 masks or the installation of sterilization machines to clean used equipment. .

The federal government has coordinated bulk purchases of PPE on behalf of provinces and territories throughout this pandemic, ordering products to supplement the existing stock that is deployed nationally in the event of an emergency.

Even when the government received orders, or in some cases donations, of N95 masks, there was a delay in sending them to provinces and territories because Canada was, for months after the start of the pandemic, completely dependent on ‘a North Carolina lab to test the products. he received.

Millions of Chinese-made N95 masks purchased by Canada would later be rejected for failing to meet sanitary standards.

Ottawa’s first orders of N95 masks were not finalized until March 18 – days after health officials coordinated a nationwide shutdown amid a wave of COVID-19 cases. (Justin Fraser / CBC)

While the global threat of COVID-19 was already well known in February, the Federal Procurement Department signed a few contracts to procure the other equipment the country needed to fight the deadly virus.

The cache of government documents shows that most of the purchasing agreements signed in February – CBC found only four – were for items of little value, compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars in equipment the government was scrambling for. following to buy in the following months.

For example, on February 14, the first contract included in the documents, procurement officials signed a contract for $ 150,997 for “medical equipment and supplies.”

Four days later, the government bought gowns for $ 52,658, followed by nitrile gloves for $ 56,474.

In April, the government signed dozens of contracts for N95 masks, at least one of which was worth more than $ 90 million.

WATCH | The provinces are “playing” with the reopening, says CMA president:

New Brunswick Conservative Senator Rose-May Poirier and AMC President Sandy Buchman appeared before the Senate Social Affairs Committee on Wednesday. 1:34

The continued shortage of masks in March and April prompted Canadian Medical Association president Sandy Buchman to warn a Senate committee in May that the country’s “sick” health system was at a “breaking point” because the doctors didn’t. have access to a regular and adequate supply of protective equipment.

Contacted on Thursday for comment, Buchman said the delay in ordering PPE is “symptomatic of the lack of attention that has been given to pandemic preparedness ahead of COVID-19.”

He said Canada is ill-equipped to deal with the outbreak of this virus.

“It’s almost like they’re still in shock,” Buchman said. “Fortunately, we haven’t overwhelmed the health care system, otherwise what you are telling me would have made the situation worse,” Buchman said in an interview.

He said that an adequate supply of PPE on the reserve would have resulted in much less “mental anguish” for doctors and medical professionals who were struggling with a rationed supply of N95 masks.

“The anxiety associated with the lack of adequate PPE and, I might mention, high quality PPE, was palpable – the vast majority of our physician members experienced tremendous levels of mental stress and tension about it” , did he declare.

Asked whether the government should have acted faster, a spokesperson for Hajdu avoided the question and said in a statement that the government had “quickly established a reserve and medical supplies to help respond. the short- and long-term needs of frontline health workers. ”

The government has also helped set up a network of national PPE suppliers, said the spokesperson, who has bolstered local stocks.

“Shipments of PPE and medical supplies continue to arrive at PHAC’s warehouses from national and international suppliers as we work with provinces and territories to prepare for future needs, including the administration of potential vaccines. and a possible second wave. ”

The Conservative spokesperson for utilities said the sluggishness of the federal government’s response had created unnecessary hardship.

“They had national and international evidence of the global crisis, they ignored it, they hesitated and Canadians suffered,” Kelly McCauley said in a statement.

The delay is reminiscent of the federal government’s slow response to other issues related to COVID-19.

The Canadian Forces Intelligence Command medical unit briefed Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan of the COVID-19 crisis on January 17, but the government incident response group – led by the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and composed of ministers and other senior government officials – did not. t meet to discuss COVID-19 for up to 10 days later.

In March, the country’s top public health officials, and Hajdu, still maintained that the threat to Canada was “low.” Dozens of Canadians would die a month later.

The border has remained open to hundreds of thousands of travelers from Asia, Europe and the United States – passengers who have infected countless Canadians – for months, even after it became clear that COVID -19 was tearing up countries like China, Italy and Iran.

“The Liberals received military intelligence in mid-January on COVID and should have taken immediate action to procure more PPE. Even the WHO has warned of serious interruptions in the supply of PPE as of February 7, ”McCauley said.

“Their inability to procure PPE for Canada ultimately led to dangerous shortages as the country struggled to fight the pandemic. “

Health workers wait to remove their personal protective equipment in Mumbai, India on June 14. (Francis Mascarenhas / Reuters)

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