A CBC investigation has revealed the government of Canada threw out two million N95 masks and 440,000 medical gloves when it shut down an emergency stockpile warehouse in Regina last year.
In an email to CBC, a spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Canada, which oversees the stockpile, said the masks and gloves had been purchased in 2009 and “had passed the limit of five years for their use, as recommended by the manufacturer.” The masks expired in 2014.
Provincial governments and health care workers are facing a severe shortage of N95 masks. For hospital workers in the COVID-19 pandemic, the N95 masks have become the health-care standard in personal protective equipment because they are designed to filter out tiny virus particles.
The National Emergency Strategic Stockpile (NESS), which is operated by the federal government, is a network of warehouses across the country that stores medical equipment and supplies. Provinces and territories can request use of these materials in the event of emergencies such as disease outbreaks.
Yet in Regina last spring, the federal government threw out the supplies and instead of replenishing the warehouse, shut it down.
The destruction of the masks surprised some experts in emergency preparedness.
They say if the stockpile was managed properly, the supplies would have been distributed to the provincial health care system or other users before they expired.
“These kinds of masks and gloves should not have been winding up in a landfill,” said John Lindsay, who teaches emergency and disaster management at Brandon University in Manitoba.
“They should have been winding up in somebody’s hands who could use them properly.”
Sask. warehouse shut down
Retired senator David Tkachuk, who wrote a report 12 years ago on the state of emergency preparedness in Canada, said the Regina stockpile wasn’t properly managed. He said Ottawa has not explained why it shut the warehouse.
“It’s not stockpile management at all, it’s mismanagement,” Tkachuk from his home in Saskatoon.
Back in 2008, Tkachuk was the deputy chair of a Senate committee that concluded the then Conservative government had underfunded and mismanaged Canada’s emergency response system.
The report was provocatively entitled “Emergency preparedness in Canada: how the fine arts of bafflegab and procrastination hobble the people who will be trying to save you when things get really bad.”
The former Conservative senator said little has changed since the report, noting that the warehouse was not replenished with supplies.
“Lack of action had a terrible consequence,” said Tkachuk who retired in February. “Because one, [the stockpile warehouse] wasn’t replenished it was closed. And two, none of it was used. So it was just purchased and thrown in the garbage dump.”
“It’s a disregard for the public purse and someone has to be responsible for this.”
A mountain of masks and gloves
None of this would have been made public, if it hadn’t been for Joe Audette, who runs a dumpster bin company in Regina.
Audette told CBC that last May the NESS asked him to bid on a project that involved emptying the organization’s Regina warehouse of “mostly gloves and light material.”
A NESS employee asked specifically for Audette’s largest dumpsters, “the 24-yard,” and estimated that he would need about 40 of them for the job.
“That would have been the biggest order I’d ever seen. So that’s why it’s so memorable.”
His company, Just Bins, didn’t get the job.
But a few weeks later, he saw his competitor had delivered dozens of 30-yard bins — “which is just about the largest dumpster you can rent, filled to the brim, level load, with these boxes.”
He took a closer look at the growing mountain. It contained brown boxes full of disposable gloves and white boxes filled with N95 masks. Audette provided CBC with a picture of the boxes taken from the landfill.
At the time, Audette considered the whole thing wasteful, but he didn’t give it more thought until Canada’s health-care system, from coast to coast, started sounding the alarm about a shortage of N95 masks earlier this year.
That’s what inspired him to reach out to CBC and tell his story.
“Such a shame,” said Audette. “Those are literally rotting under dirt right now. I try not to think about it because it’s crazy.”
He wonders if it all could have been put to a better use.
“As Canadians, we do a lot of foreign aid, and I think this would have been much better spent maybe in that direction than at a local landfill.”
Prof. Lindsay of Brandon University said the disposal of the masks and gloves shows Ottawa is mismanaging its stockpile of medical supplies.
Lindsay said in a responsibly managed stockpile, supplies would be sent into the provincial health-care system or to another agency that could make use of them. In fact, he said recently-expired masks could still be used.
CBC asked PHAC if the destroyed masks could have been donated to other places in the world. In its email to CBC, the federal health agency said it doesn’t send expired equipment abroad.
Created during Cold War
There are many unanswered questions about how Ottawa manages its stockpile.
Tkachuk said Canada has not disclosed what else it may have discarded from the Regina warehouse. He’s also concerned that Ottawa may have closed some of the other seven warehouses located in major centres across Canada.
Jack Rozdilsky, an expert in disaster and emergency preparedness at York University in Toronto, said it may be difficult to get answers about the stockpile system.
He noted it was created in the 1950s and built up during the Cold War. For that reason it has always been a state secret.
“We may not be able to ever find answers to your satisfaction, to my satisfaction, about what exists where and what numbers and how decisions were made,” said Rozdilsky.
“Because many of these stockpiles and many of the decisions made around them exist under a veil of national security.”
Canada remains unprepared
At a news conference on April 1, federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu admitted that Canada’s stockpile was not prepared for this crisis.
“I think federal governments for decades have been underfunding things like public health preparedness, and I would say that obviously governments all across the world are in the same exact situation,” Hajdu said.
Tkachuk said back in 2008, there was a similar lack of basic information and preparation.
The Senate report found that Canadians were at risk, and groups of bureaucrats were “still soliciting and drafting and considering” what to do about emergency preparedness.
“Let’s give Nero credit where credit is due. At least he played the fiddle.”
Tkachuk hopes that this latest crisis might finally be the wake up call that Canada needs to start taking emergency preparedness seriously.