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HomeBusinessCOVID Exclusive: Inside the NDP government’s frantic hunt to find N95 masks for doctors, nurses

COVID Exclusive: Inside the NDP government’s frantic hunt to find N95 masks for doctors, nurses

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Bob Mackin

B.C.’s NDP government was so unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic that Premier John Horgan’s deputy minister urgently ordered staff to search under desks to find N95 masks for frontline doctors and nurses.

3M N95 mask

Internal email, obtained under freedom of information by theBreaker.news, shows Don Wright issued a bulletin to all deputy ministers on March 27, ordering the collection of N95 masks from office earthquake kits “as soon as possible for redistribution to health authorities.”

The government failed to replenish B.C.’s disappearing post-SARS stockpiles before 2020. The pandemic caused unprecedented global demand for personal protective equipment.

“Where practical, I would appreciate this being done today,” Wright wrote.

“For those of you located in Victoria, please bring any N95 masks to my office. We will collect them here and work with Health and [Emergency Management B.C.] to have them delivered to health authorities. I expect the Premier will be very interested in seeing how many masks are collected, which is why I would ask that they come here.”

Earlier that day, some top officials told Wright that earthquake preparedness kits under workers’ desks contained sealed N95 masks.

Wright’s plea for help came just two days after Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said March 25 that supplies were “on a tenuous level.” Henry had previously denied any supply issues.

Don Wright, Premier John Horgan’s deputy minister (BC Gov)

Sunny Dhaliwal, an assistant deputy minister of the real property division, coordinated the search mission.

“Focus on those buildings which will yield us the maximum inventory and then continue to collect the masks from all other locations,” Dhaliwal wrote.

The precise number of N95s collected was not released, but masks were found in offices at the Ministries of Transportation, Health, Education, Citizens Services, Environment and Finance. A Ministry of Health facilities manager said 1,265 masks and five boxes of latex gloves were found at its offices. 

Assistant deputy minister Philip Twyford sent an April 7 memo to ministry staff about the “cross-government effort which provided thousands of masks to front-line health workers.”

The earthquake kits, he wrote, would be replenished “when a supply is available for this purpose.”

In July, theBreaker.news reported that B.C.’s pandemic stockpiles had lost two-thirds of their value since 2013. Medical supplies buyers in the Provincial Health Services Authority [PHSA] finally took action in February, less than a month before the World Health Organization declared the pandemic. They were particularly alarmed about the Interior, which reported $0 value, and the North, which had less than $16,000 of goods on hand.

“Health authorities’ pandemic supply levels have dwindled or been eliminated on many items across the province,” said a Feb. 13 briefing note. “Should a widespread pandemic occur in B.C., the current level of pandemic supplies will likely not meet B.C.’s requirements which may lead to public safety risk.”

In the wake of theBreaker.news story on the PHSA documents, Dix said the B.C. health system had spent more than $114 million on PPE during the first six months of 2020, including $29.55 million on N95 or equivalent respirators.

Dr. Bonnie Henry (left), Premier John Horgan and Health Minister Adrian Dix (Mackin)

During a campaign stop Oct. 10 in Richmond, theBreaker.news asked Dix why the NDP government was not better prepared. He pointed to 2020’s dramatic increase in domestic PPE use and global market demand. “I think we’ve done well,” Dix said.

Dix refused, however, to answer questions about why the NDP failed to properly manage the stockpiles during its first two-and-a-half years in office.

The government has been similarly evasive about how much it spent in 2019. In May, theBreaker.news applied for the total dollar amount spent on PPE in 2019, including N95 masks, versus 2020 to-date.

Disclosure was delayed to Sept. 15 and then to Oct. 28, which is four days after the snap election. The government’s central FOI office claims the delay is because it is “working to balance vital priorities.”

A scathing Oct. 6 report for the Canadian Federation of Nurses called “Time of Fear: How Canada Failed Our Health Care Workers and Mismanaged COVID-19,” said Canada was woefully unprepared and largely ignored the lessons of SARS.

“We will never know how many of the more than 21,000 Canadian health care workers infected with COVID‐19 might have been kept safe had there been sufficient stockpiles at a precautionary level,” the report said. “What we do know, as outlined earlier in this report, is that jurisdictions like China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, that took a precautionary approach to worker safety, have significantly lower levels of health worker infections.”

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