Companies gearing up medical equipment production want faster approvals
TORONTO -- Canadian companies trying to answer the call for urgently needed personal protective equipment say governments need to step up approvals and funding.
Masks, gowns, gloves and other equipment are in critically short supply for doctors, nurses, and other caregivers in Canadian hospitals, testing sites, and nursing homes. And there is perhaps no more urgent priority in this pandemic crisis than keeping front-line health-care staff healthy and on the job.
One study estimates acute care settings in Ontario alone will require 27.8 million gloves, 7.2 million face shields, 5.7 million surgical masks, and 1.5 million N95 masks between April 6 and May 6.
As hospitals brace for an expected surge in COVID-19 admissions and Canada competes with countries around the world for medical equipment, governments have promised funding to ramp up domestic production of PPE through existing manufacturers or those shifting from other products in this time of crisis.
But CTV News has heard from companies across Canada that are producing or ready to produce but are bogged down in government red tape or haven’t had any response at all.
It’s a troubling disconnect for medical and surgical equipment maker Southmedic in Barrie, Ont.
Southmedic says it has 1,600 orders awaiting production or delivery and 90 per cent of its pending orders for face shields and oxygen masks come from Canada. The company has made 2 million shields since the first of March and is now producing anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 face shields a day.
But CEO and company founder Lee McDonald told CTV News medical correspondent Avis Favaro that the company could be producing four times that much, if only the federal or provincial governments would return her calls and provide assistance to source materials, address workforce shortages, and fund engineering and automation that can scale production quickly and safely.
Together, Ottawa and the provinces are offering more than $2 billion to boost production of medical equipment and products.
McDonald says retooling idled companies to pitch in is laudable, but she says it’s far easier to scale up at existing medical suppliers than to start from zero.
“I think there should be a portal for established companies that we know can probably fill 80 per cent of the demand very quickly with some assistance.”
That’s why she wonders why no one from either the federal or provincial government is returning her calls for help to expand. She says her workforce already has the skills and all products are already approved.
“We've registered with the government at all levels to try and get some assistance and we've heard nothing. We've got an acknowledgement that they have our applications, but that's all,” she said.
A spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade said: "We are reviewing thousands of submissions … to ensure quality assurance and safety measures are met.”
Problems are multi-fold, but McDonald says the usually clock-work supply chain is now coming in fits and starts. Sometimes products are hard to find, with a growing number of suppliers scrambling for the same materials, or shipments don’t easily make it over the border.
That means, for instance, the line producing the oxygen masks that are needed to keep patients stable has had to halt because Southmedic can’t get enough of the elastic used to keep the mask in place.
“We believe we could increase our production by four times if not more if we just got a bit of assistance, and we got help to source the raw materials that we need,” said McDonald, who is a former registered nurse and a veteran of infectious outbreaks.
Her company supplied medical outbreak during SARS and H1N1. The COVID-19 emergency is adding huge challenges because schools are closed and she’s losing staff who have to be home with children, or have symptoms of the virus, or simply are scared to come to work.
An attrition rate of 30 to 35 per cent per day hits production hard.
“It makes it hard for lines to continue to run,” said Yvonne Stahlmann, health and safety manager at Southmedic. “When you have 70 people missing that means holes in production.”
And though there are many people displaced from other industries looking for work, training them takes time and slows down production.
One solution could come in setting up daycares for employees of essential medical supply companies, just as those provided for hospital workers.
Just down the road from Southmedic is Royal Victoria Hospital and it’s in desperate need of supplies right now.
This is a daily struggle for us, and we need all sorts of protective equipment,” said Dr. Chris Tebbutt, the hospital’s vice-president of academic and medical affairs.
“We're talking about masks, but there are a number of different protective devices that we need. Our usual supply chain is something that we look at every day, but obviously the supplies we need right now far exceed that.”
The situation in Barrie is just one example of a disconnect between an urgent demand and an untapped supply. That’s leaving workers on the front lines at unnecessary risk as Canadian COVID-19 cases hit 22,148, a number that includes 569 deaths and 6,013 recoveries.
The president of B.C. food packaging company Packright that has shifted to making face shields is frustrated by delays.
“First and foremost we need to get product on people's faces,” said Colin Chiu. “That's where it needs to be. It does nothing sitting in my warehouse. It does everything sitting on somebody's face, right?”
Chiu has shifted production to a Port Coquitlam dance studio from his Langley facility where space was too tight.
“We couldn't create that social distance for the amount of people we needed. So that was why we moved here.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, they had shipped more than 5,200 shields and can produce one every three to four seconds.
Chiu says he’s applied for a Health Canada licence for his product but is still waiting. Innovation Canada says more than 5,000 companies have responded to Ottawa’s call for assistance went out March 20.
The prime minister says his government is working to speed up approvals for essential equipment, virus test kits, and medications. He praised Canadian companies for stepping up to help during his daily update on April 7.
“We are working around the clock to ensure that our frontline workers have everything they need to save lives and stay safe. While we’re working to secure critical equipment from Canadian sources, we’re also in touch with other suppliers around the world who want to sell to Canada.”