The NWT’s medical director says the territory has enough protective equipment for healthcare staff as things stand, but is mindful of “the very real possibility of scarcity in the coming weeks.”
Dr Sarah Cook told reporters the territory has “an adequate supply for several weeks” at current usage rates and is actively working to acquire more masks, gowns, and gloves.
But a change in the NWT’s situation – like an uptick in Covid-19 cases – could affect how long supplies last.
The NWT has staff tracking supply levels, is lobbying the federal government for more equipment, and is researching whether supplies can be made by private companies within the territory.
Medical firm 62 Degrees North is already producing hand sanitizer with approval from the NWT’s chief public health officer, as is the NWT government’s own Taiga Lab.
Russell Neudorf, one of the NWT’s emergency management leaders, said on Wednesday morning the territory was looking for companies to locally manufacture non-medical, cloth-based masks to meet recent guidelines that residents wear them in public.
Small businesses like the Quilted Raven and Erasmus Apparel are already turning to production of masks for members of the public. The territorial government says it is bringing in extra materials to help.
Dr Kami Kandola, the territory’s chief public health officer, said the NWT was investigating whether anyone locally can take production a step further and manufacture medical-grade surgical masks and face shields.
“That would be ideal,” Dr Kandola said. “The more we can make in-house, the stronger our capacity.”
Watching the burn rate
A global shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPE, has developed in the weeks since the World Health Organization declared a Covid-19 pandemic.
Recently, concerns were raised that while the NWT wants residents to wear cloth masks in public, some healthcare workers are being told they don’t need masks to do their jobs.
Dr Cook on Wednesday said: “We are not at the stage yet of recommending continuous masking [where workers wear masks at all times] for all healthcare providers, because we don’t have community transmission yet and are in a setting of trying to preserve PPE for when we do need it.”
Sarah Erasmus, owner of Erasmus Apparel, models one of her company’s new cloth masks – for non-medical use – on Wednesday. Photo: Sarah Erasmus
Community transmission is when the virus jumps from person to person with no apparent link to travel or existing cases. Most Canadian provinces have reached that point, but the Northwest Territories has not – the NWT’s five cases to date are all directly linked to travel.
“If we have community spread and need to go to continuous masking for anyone within two metres of a patient, that’s going to change the burn rate,” Cook continued, referring to the rate at which equipment is used. “When it occurs, it may change the guidance on who is masking and how often.
“We are actively looking at procurement options to get more masks as we recognize the burn rate is going to increase when we have more cases.”
Continuous masking is already in place in long-term care facilities, Cook said, where a higher level of protection is required. Healthcare workers whose jobs already require PPE have immediate access to it.
Equipment can be reprocessed
A “PPE working group” is exploring the NWT’s options to ensure supplies are maintained. The territory is running models to determine how long its supplies are likely to last.
One potential option would be to “reprocess” old PPE, taking equipment that might ordinarily be discarded and cleaning it for reuse.
Cook said the territory would only do so using a federally approved process that guaranteed the safety of staff, and was not yet in a situation where such action was necessary.
“We are not looking at giving our staff equipment that would not be safe,” she said. “It’s definitely a priority to keep everyone safe … in line with national guidelines.”
However, a commonly used set of PPE guidelines states that when shortages begin, healthcare providers should opt for the “next level down” item – and eventually homemade masks as a last resort if nothing else can be found.
Cook emphasized that while the need to find more PPE exists, she would not yet characterize the territory’s supplies as critically low.
“It’s not to say there’s not a concern,” she said, “but as of today, we are not imminently about to run out of PPE in the next week, no.”