The public servants who manage the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile (NESS) warned in early February that there was a shortage of the personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to weather a pandemic but it took weeks for the federal government to sign contracts for goods like N95 respirators, the masks used by health-care professionals to protect themselves from COVID-19.
CBC News reviewed thousands of pages of documents released to the House of Commons government operations committee, including dozens of contracts signed between bureaucrats at Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) and companies offering equipment to the federal government.
In a PowerPoint presentation delivered on Feb. 13 by Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) — and prompted by the early spread of the coronavirus — bureaucrats responsible for the NESS said that the federal stockpile contained only “a modest supply of personal protective equipment including surgical masks, respirators, gloves, gowns and coveralls.”
“We anticipate increased demand and further requests, and also shortages, limits to availability and impacts on the global supply chain. We want to be as ready as possible to meet immediate needs,” the presentation said.
It is unknown just how much equipment the national stockpile had on hand in February because the charts detailing the inventory have been blacked out.
The records show that, despite the warning in February, the government signed few contracts for PPE or other equipment, like ventilators, until mid-March.
In fact, the bureaucrats charged with replacing the national stockpile didn’t receive special dispensation — a national security exemption — to quickly replenish supplies through sole-sourced contracts until March 14.
The first orders for N95 masks weren’t finalized until March 18 — days after the PHAC, led by Dr. Theresa Tam, co-ordinated a national shutdown as provinces issued emergency orders amid a surge of COVID-19 cases.
Two contracts were signed on that day with unnamed companies for $15.2 million and $7.6 million worth of N95 respirators, so-named because they are supposed to screen out 95 per cent of small particles.
The PHAC warned, however, deliveries weren’t expected until at least March 30 given global demand.
One briefing note, prepared on March 5, warned the sudden push to acquire more equipment was off to a bad start, with China limiting exports and the Trump administration in the U.S. pressuring major manufacturers there, like 3M, to direct supplies to American customers.
“Our largest suppliers are rationing product,” the PHAC bureaucrats said, adding that “the products that will be required … face shortages and will evolve over time.”
It added: “Managing/moderating demand will be critical.”
The slow start to PPE orders hit home at the end of April with bureaucrats preparing a “back pocket note,” a list of talking points, for Health Minister Patty Hajdu to use during a call with her provincial and territorial counterparts.
The note said procuring respirators was an “ongoing challenge” and Ottawa would have to “sensitize” provincial authorities to accepting Chinese-made alternatives like KN95 masks or installing sterilization machines to clean used equipment.
The federal government has co-ordinated the bulk buying of PPE on behalf of the provinces and territories throughout this pandemic, ordering goods to supplement the existing stockpile that is deployed nationwide during emergencies.
Even when the government did receive orders, or in some cases donations, of N95 masks, there was a delay in sending them to the provinces and territories because Canada was, for months into the pandemic, wholly dependent on a North Carolina lab to test goods it received.
Millions of Chinese-made N95 masks purchased by Canada would later be rejected because they failed to meet health standards.
While the global threat of COVID-19 was already well-known by February, the federal purchasing department signed few contracts to procure the other equipment the country needed to combat the deadly virus.
The cache of government documents show most of the purchasing agreements signed in February — CBC found only four — were for items worth little compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of equipment the government would subsequently scramble to buy in the following months.
For example, on Feb. 14, the earliest contract included in the documents, procurement officials signed a contract for $150,997 for “medical equipment and supplies.”
Four days later, the government bought $52,658 worth of gowns and then $56,474 worth of nitrile gloves.
By April, the government was signing dozens of contracts for N95 masks with at least one worth more than $90 million.
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The persistent shortage of masks in March and April prompted the president of the Canadian Medical Association, Sandy Buchman, to warn a Senate committee in May that the country’s “sick” health-care system was at a “breaking point” because physicians didn’t have have access to a consistent and adequate supply of protective equipment.
Reached for comment Thursday, Buchman said the delay in ordering PPE is “symptomatic of the lack of attention that was given to pandemic preparedness before COVID-19.”
He said Canada was ill-equipped to deal with the onset of this virus.
“It’s almost like they were still in shock,” Buchman said. “Fortunately we didn’t overwhelm the health-care system otherwise what you’re telling me would have made the situation a lot worse,” Buchman said in an interview.
He said an adequate supply of PPE in the stockpile would have resulted in a lot less “mental anguish” for physicians and medical professionals who were grappling with a rationed supply of N95 masks.
“The anxiety associated with the lack of adequate PPE and, might I mention, high-quality PPE, was palpable — the vast majority of our physician membership was experiencing huge levels of mental stress and strain regarding this,” he said.
Asked if the government should have moved faster, a spokesperson for Hajdu side-stepped the question and said, in a statement, the government has “rapidly established a supply of and medical supplies to help meet both the short- and long-term needs of frontline health-care workers.”
The government has also helped to establish a network of domestic suppliers of PPE, the spokesperson said, which has bolstered local stockpiles.
“Deliveries of PPE and medical supplies continue to arrive at PHAC warehouses from both domestic and international suppliers while we work with provinces and territories to prepare for future needs, including the administration of potential vaccines and a possible second wave.”
The Conservative critic for public services said the federal government’s slow response resulted in unnecessary hardship.
“They had domestic and international evidence that there was a global crisis unfolding, they ignored it, they dithered and Canadians suffered,” Kelly McCauley said in a statement.
The delay is not unlike the federal government’s slow response to other COVID-19-related matters.
The medical unit within Canadian Forces Intelligence Command briefed Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan about the COVID-19 crisis on Jan. 17, but the government’s incident response group — led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and composed of cabinet ministers and other senior governmental officials — didn’t meet to discuss COVID-19 until 10 days later.
In March, the country’s top public health officials, and Hajdu, still maintained that the threat to Canada was “low.” Dozens of Canadians would die a month later.
The border remained open to hundreds of thousands of travellers from Asia, Europe and the U.S. — passengers that infected an untold number of Canadians — for months, even after it was clear that COVID-19 was ripping through countries like China, Italy and Iran.
“The Liberals received military intelligence in mid-January on COVID and should have taken immediate action to procure more PPE. Even the WHO warned about severe interruptions in PPE supply as early as February 7th,” McCauley said.
“Their failure to move on procuring PPE for Canada ultimately led to dangerous shortages while the country struggled to fight the pandemic.”