“I couldn’t get up,” George Irwin told CTV News. “It was debilitating for me, for someone who is an active guy. I was bedridden.
Brenda Elliott says she had difficulty breathing and had to sleep sitting up. It was a disappointing realization of the severity of the virus.
“We figured if it was doing this to us and we had mild symptoms, I can’t imagine what people go through with a full-blown COVID,” she said.
As the couple recovered in isolation, Canada struggled to secure enough PPE for frontline workers and those who needed it most, and appealed for help from companies. Irwin received an email from a company in China that had a long history of making toys for the company and had recently switched to making masks asking if his wife Irwin wanted any.
“We looked at that and thought, ‘Wow, because of what we’ve just been through, we have to find a way to get masks to people who need them,’ he said.
Irwin Toy therefore launched a massive effort to import masks into Canada, obtaining more than 10 million masks over several months.
It was a difficult task, made no easier by the fact that countries around the world were scrambling to buy the PPE they so badly needed. They experienced a litany of issues, including high air freight costs and planes that landed in Canada without any cargo.
“It was like the wild and wild west, and I know that phrase has been used repeatedly in this pandemic, but I’ve never seen so many things that could go wrong have gone wrong,” Irwin said .
The challenges allowed the Irwins to realize how important a reliable national stockpile of PPE is to Canada. It also got them thinking about how to create a lasting solution.
“We thought, ‘Enough of this,’ Elliott said. “We thought, ‘Our frontline workers can never be put in this position again.’”
Collingwood, Ont. couple created a new company called Trebor Rx with plans to produce two types of Canadian masks. The first are the more common three-ply surgical masks, finding a factory near Toronto that will begin pumping about 700,000 masks per day in November.
The second is a new type of mask created by Eiliott’s nephew in South America, where it is already approved and sold.
Made of plastic, the PRO + can be used for a month and cleaned with a wipe, in the dishwasher or in an autoclave. The filters on each side of the mask are changed daily. Once finished, the company collects the masks and recycles the plastic.
The contractors are outfitting a 25,000 square foot factory and are preparing to hire around 100 people locally to produce about 50,000 respirators per day, pending approval from Health Canada. Once operational, the company will become one of the largest mask manufacturers in Canada.
The toy and mask trade aren’t that different after all, says Irwin. They used the Toy Safety Model to guide them in the design and production of the masks.
“No one wants to sell a toy to a child that is going to hurt or affect them in any way,” Irwin said. “And you take all kinds of safety precautions to do that and that same formula is what we put in place for masks.”
When it comes to tailoring a business to help fight the pandemic, Irwin Toy isn’t alone. Many manufacturers have shifted their businesses to provide much-needed materials, including fashion designers making non-medical sheet masks and breweries adding alcohol-based sanitizer to their business model.
By opening the business here, Irwin hopes to limit Canada’s dependence on offshore production, which can be both fickle and expensive.
“We automatically let everything go when we didn’t have to. And I think COVID is going to get people thinking about what we can really bring back, ”Irwin said.
And even with pending federal approval, the couple say they’ve already received international interest.
“We have orders for masks in Canada, the United States, Australia and the Caribbean. And they’re all waiting for us to get approval from Health Canada, ”Irwin said.
Brenda Elliott said, for her, the decision had everything to do with helping frontline workers most at risk of catching the virus.