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Coveting coronavirus masks a growing concern for Ontario health-care workers

Posted: April 4, 2020

(April 3, 2020)

By: Kim Zarzour,

Scarce supply of COVID-19 masks prompts thefts, rationing, calls for donations across the GTA

Appeal for PPE

York Region health-care workers need your donations of unused, unopened and unexpired personal protective equipment. – Southlake Foundation

Let’s put this bluntly: the public’s panic for N95 masks is overkill — and it can kill.

That’s the word from health-care providers as they make a desperate plea to reserve these hard-to-come-by protective devices for those who need them most.

The N95 — so called because when properly worn, they block at least 95 per cent of very small test particles — are in short supply.

Local hospital officials say N95s are crucial, possibly life-saving, for some nurses and physicians — but not all.

And certainly not for the rest of us out to grab some bananas and toilet paper at the grocery store.

While some hospital staff are expressing concern about rationing of masks among staff, and a growing number of scientists are calling for universal use of face masks, York Region Public Health continues to advise the public not to bother wearing one if you don’t have symptoms of COVID-19.

If you do have symptoms — like fever, cough or difficulty breathing — and are around other people or are caring for someone who has COVID-19, then a mask can be useful, acting as a barrier, helping stop the tiny droplets from spreading you when you cough or sneeze, says spokesperson Patrick Casey.

That’s in keeping with current advice from the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control, but the pandemic is a constantly changing landscape. U.S. media is reporting those guidelines may soon be re-evaluated as new data shows high rates of transmission from people who are infected but show no symptoms.

Canada’s chief public health officer opened the door to the public wearing of homemade, non-medical masks on Twitter Apr. 1.

Dr. Theresa Tam said they may stop you from touching your nose and mouth and encourage you to cover when you cough, but she warned they should be well-fitted and you must practice good hygiene before, during and after wearing.

“Avoid touching your mask while wearing one, wash and disinfect or discard as soon as it gets damp,” she advised.


Meanwhile, some local grocers — like Markham’s Sunfood Supermarket — have begun requiring all customers to don masks, and there are growing fears medical mask hoarding could imperil those on the front line.

Ontario hospitals have taken a scattered approach toward their use and donation of PPE from the community. Many are rationing medical masks as supply dwindles. The Ontario Health Coalition reports staff at some hospitals fighting over PPE and Ontario Nurses’ Association president Vicki McKenna says there are reports of masks being stolen from locked cupboards.

McKenna says in a joint statement Mar. 30 that the province’s new directives bring “much-needed clarity” to the confusion.

Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, say that a “point of care” risk assessment must be performed by every health-care worker before every patient interaction in a public hospital. If the worker determines, based on the assessment and their professional and clinical judgment, that it is required, then the hospital may not reasonably deny PPE — which may include an N95 respirator.

The latest directives may address health-care workers’ worries about what they see happening south of the border, reassuring them they will have the PPE they need, and hospitals won’t be conserving masks inappropriately.


While the nurses’ association is pleased with the directives, McKenna says, other health care sectors such as long-term care, public health, and home care, also need to be considered.

The Ontario Hospital Association agrees more is needed.

In a statement Apr. 2, Anthony Dale, the Coalition’s president and CEO, said the situation is at a critical juncture. He calls on the federal and provincial government to work “unceasingly” for more supplies, and to clearly and specifically inform hospitals on when they will be delivered.

“These urgent actions are needed to ensure the safety of our province’s dedicated health-care workers who are working tirelessly to provide life-saving care to a growing number of Ontario’s most vulnerable patients.”

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