Niagara Health accepting homemade masks, critics say it’s a failure of government

Niagara Health officials are accepting homemade masks from locals as supplies run low but aren’t sure what to do with them while unions and the Ontario Medical Association think it is a sign of desperation.

Linda Boich, Niagara Health’s executive vice president of quality, community development and mental health and addictions, told CBC News it has been “heartwarming” to see people donate homemade masks and while they aren’t being used on front-line health-care workers, they may not go to waste.

“We are investigating other ways we may be able to use the homemade masks and will update the community on how they will be used and distributed,” read a statement from Boich.

She would not reveal more detailed information but said “any decisions would align with advice and guidelines from regional, provincial and federal subject-matter experts.”

Homemade masks like these from P.E.I. are being made for health-care workers in the Niagara region. (Submitted by Katie Beck)

Dr. Sohail Gandhi, Ontario Medical Association president, said Niagara Health accepting the masks shows how desperate hospitals are for personal protective equipment (PPE).

“Do I get the reason why they’re doing it? Yeah, but I’m very sad by it,” he said.

“I’m very disappointed we are at a circumstance like this where, in a country like Canada, we can’t provide basic equipment for our hospitals and I consider face masks to be basic equipment in a situation like this.

It’s a risk but you have to weigh your risks — is it riskier to go without than to have a mask that is not up to snuff but is at least something? … I’m guessing the hospital just made an assessment and said ‘we don’t have a choice, we have to accept some risk because otherwise we’ll have absolutely nothing.’ “

While Canada’s top doctor has recommended people wear non-medical masks, health-care workers shouldn’t use them. The homemade masks may not be made in a sanitary environment and would likely never be suitable for a medical setting.

But the national supply for official PPE has been a constant concern in hospitals and long-term care homes, despite Canada getting 17 million surgical masks and 609,000 N95 masks on Monday

Earlier in April, the Ford government said it was down to about a week’s worth of PPE and before that, in late March, it was looking at how to distribute some 55 million expired N95 masks that it stockpiled after the SARS crisis in 2003.

The city of Hamilton isn’t accepting any homemade masks and Paul Johnson, director of Hamilton’s emergency operations centre, said earlier that the city’s supply is stable, though he wishes it had more.

Ontario Medical Association president Dr. Sohail Gandhi said he regularly hears concerns from physicians about personal protective equipment. (Ontario Medical Association)

Gandhi said he has yet to see where any incoming PPE have ended up.

“Despite assurances from various levels of government that PPE is ‘coming’ I just don’t know where they are, I don’t know if they’re in a warehouse, in a truck somewhere, I don’t have any idea how they’re being distributed.”

Michael Hurley, president of Ontario Council of Hospital Unions/CUPE, told CBC News he appreciates people in the Niagara region taking time to make masks for workers and didn’t want to sound mean-spirited, but said the masks won’t solve the real problem.

“These masks shouldn’t be used by the staff because they won’t actually fulfil the purpose of protecting people … it’s not feasible to use these masks among the staff,” he said.

“I just interpret this as the hospital accepting a generous gift that people have taken a lot of time to make and that’s a nice thing for the hospital to do.”

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