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Coronavirus: Canada looking into disinfecting, reusing masks amid shortages, Tam says

Global News logo Global News 2020-04-05 Hannah Jackson
a woman sitting at a table: Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam attends a news conference as efforts continue to help slow the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Ottawa, Ontario, March 23, 2020. © Blair Gable/Reuters Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam attends a news conference as efforts continue to help slow the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Ottawa, Ontario, March 23, 2020.

As the global demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) continues to grow amid the novel coroanvirus outbreak, Canada's chief public health officer says the country is looking into whether or not some of these supplies can be reused.

Speaking at a press conference on Sunday, Dr. Theresa Tam, said officials are "looking at multiple entities in Canada" that might be able to properly disinfect medical masks.

She said if the supplies can be properly disinfected, officials will be able to tell provinces and territories which items shouldn't be thrown away, in an effort to preserve Canada's stock.

"I think that it is one of the most important, and I think worthwhile, lines of pursuit for PPE right now," Tam said.

READ MORE: Coronavirus -- Troops to assemble at CFB Borden to prepare for COVID-19 fight

Asked by reporters just how dire the shortage of masks is in Canada, Tam said the situation is dynamic, with the available supply changing every time supplies are utilized or delivered.

She said, though, that measures taken in some regions to designate wards, or areas of hospitals just to treat COVID-19 patients has been helpful for rationing the PPE.

"Because it'll be one specific area, one specific hospital where patients are being looked after so that they can look after that supply of the PPE," she explained.

But, Tam said ultimately, protecting health care workers is the "absolute priority" and that the government has pulled out all the stops to ensure they are protected.

Research underway

Last week, researchers at the University of Manitoba announced they may have found a way to reuse N95 masks up to 10 times.

The researchers tested four different types of N95 masks with four different sterilization methods including repeated cycles of standard autoclaving, ethylene oxide gassing, ionized hydrogen peroxide fogging, and vaporized hydrogen peroxide treatment.

READ MORE: University of Manitoba researchers look for ways to clean and reuse N95 masks

According to a release from the U of M, the results show several of the decontamination methods can be used repeatedly without degrading the masks’ effectiveness.

The study has yet to be peer-review or be published in a medical journal, but the team hopes to eventually share their research findings so that jurisdictions can assess the options that will enable their health-care workers to be appropriately protected.

What's more, on Saturday, Manitoba's chief nursing officer said housekeeping staff at the province's acute care centres will start collecting used N-95 masks for re-use if they're are deemed safe.

Lanette Siragusa says the province has been in touch with vendors to be ready for possible supply interruptions of protective equipment, but has also started gathering `` gently used'' N-95 respirators from all its acute care sites for sterilization.

However, she said soiled, wet, damp and stained N-95 masks will continue to be discarded.

   

"Millions" of masks from China

On Saturday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that "millions" of masks would be delivered on a chartered cargo flight from China "within 48 hours."

Ottawa is expecting the plane to deliver between seven and eight million surgical masks.

According to Trudeau, Canada has also leased a warehouse in China so additional supplies can be collected and distributed "as quickly as possible.”

But, while Canada continues to receive goods from international suppliers, Trudeau said the country is also depending on PPE from domestic manufacturers.

Canada's deputy chief public health officer, Dr. Howard Njoo said on Sunday that Canada is looking to increase its domestic capacity.

"That won't happen overnight," he said, "But certainly efforts are underway to make sure that here in Canada that we have the capacity down the road -- hopefully sooner rather than later -- to make our own personal protective equipment."

Njoo said currently an "allocation framework" is in place with "lots of factors in play" that help determine where supplies are sent.

"For example, if a given part of the country has a specific outbreak or region that's particularly affected, certainly that would be a priority to get the masks that are available to that specific area," he explained.

READ MORE: Coronavirus -- Canadians aboard Coral Princess cruise ship to begin returning home

Asked by reporters if Canada is looking into other measures for healthcare workers, including providing a place to stay if they become ill and need to self-isolate, Tam said nothing is off the table.

"We are looking at everything to slow the spread of the virus and this epidemic, and so these are some of the kinds of discussions that we do have with provinces and territories," she said.

She said in Manitoba, officials are already considering these types of supports to protect frontline workers and their families.

"So absolutely, that's one aspect of our response that we can offer support for should that be needed," Tam said.

-With files from Global News' Shane Gibson and The Canadian Press

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