TORONTO – Millions of face masks stockpiled by Ontario in the aftermath of the SARS outbreak to protect healthcare workers during a future epidemic have expired, according to provincial officials and documents, raising questions about the readiness of Canada’s most populous province to deal with the spreading coronavirus.
Thirteen years ago, Ontario stockpiled some 55 million N95 masks and other medical equipment after the province bore the brunt of the SARS epidemic in Canada in 2002 and 2003. But provincial officials have confirmed that the masks in the stockpile have passed their expiration date and sidestepped questions about how many masks, including expired ones, remain.
Public health officials have said masks may be less effective beyond the expiration date determined by the manufacturer. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the past has recommended use of expired masks only under “crisis” shortage situations.
Healthcare providers in Ontario have expressed worry about shortages of protective supplies like masks, given the expected spike in demand during an outbreak like the novel coronavirus that originated in China and has spread to various parts of the world. Canada has reported more than 70 cases of coronavirus infections as well as one death. Canadian hospitals have been told by provincial officials to maintain a four-week supply as standard policy.
Ontario, which includes Canada’s largest city Toronto, said in 2007 it would buy 55 million N95 masks and other medical supplies to prepare for future epidemics. A report by the province’s auditor general, completed in December 2017, found that more than 80 percent of that stockpile had expired.
Officials did not say how many masks remained in the stockpile.
“You are correct in your understanding that the N95 masks purchased 13 years ago have expired,” Ontario’s health ministry said in a statement to Reuters.
Asked whether provincial officials have any masks on hand, the ministry did not answer directly. It said health organizations are getting their usual supply shipments, adding: “We are working with them and our supply chain partners to ensure they continue to have adequate access to supplies as they continue to effectively respond to COVID-19,” the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Ontario Nurses’ Association president Vicki McKenna said in an email, “We believe that there is a supply problem but government officials will not confirm supply. … This question is asked at every meeting with ministry officials.”
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