May 28, 2020

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Province masking reality of PPE availability

Editorial

On Friday, Manitoba’s provincial government announced it was devoting another $300 million to front-line pandemic needs, including the purchase of "significant amounts" of personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to protect health-care workers and help stem the spread of COVID-19. That’s an impressive pledge, albeit one based on a misleading premise.

Despite efforts by the Progressive Conservative government and public-health officials to deny what was happening, Manitoba is facing a critical shortage of PPE. When questioned, Shared Health Manitoba officials have downplayed concerns about the province’s stockpile of masks, gowns, gloves and hand sanitizer by pointing out that this province was the first to place an order with the federal government’s central pandemic procurement effort.

Jon Super / The Associated Press</p><p>Access to PPE is an urgent issue for health workers.</p>

Jon Super / The Associated Press

Access to PPE is an urgent issue for health workers.

This, Premier Brian Pallister assured the province, was evidence that Manitoba is the "most prepared" province in the country. What has subsequently become apparent is that being the first to place an order was no guarantee that Manitoba would receive everything it requested.

Last week, Shared Health finally admitted that after ordering "millions" of dollars of PPE, Manitoba was only receiving "thousands" of dollars of actual protective equipment. Our supplies of gowns, N95 masks (which provide the highest level of protection for health-care workers) and hand sanitizer are dangerously low. Gloves, surgical masks and eye protection supplies are in better supply, but still declining.

This admission reveals a contradiction contained in Friday’s announcement. The shortage of PPE is not related to spending; it is a reflection of the fact there is a global shortage of this equipment, and what supplies are coming into Canada are going, correctly, to the provinces that need them the most. Given Manitoba’s success to date at limiting the virus’s spread, we’re not the province of greatest need — at least, not right now.

Manitoba can hardly be faulted — in fact, should be applauded — for being one of the least-affected provinces. But it can be criticized for making misleading claims about our level of preparedness.

Manitoba can hardly be faulted ‐ in fact, should be applauded ‐ for being one of the least–affected provinces. But it can be criticized for making misleading claims about our level of preparedness.

Even as politicians and public-health officials were denying there was a problem, there were signs that PPE was actually in short supply: public appeals for donations of PPE; rapid requests for local industry to re-tool to produce masks, gowns and hand sanitizer; guidelines for the use of PPE that dictated the re-use of certain kinds of masks.

Now, Manitoba finds itself in an awkward dilemma: desperate enough to issue broad, public pleas for PPE donations, but too tight-lipped to admit the magnitude of the problem. That is not a winning strategy to meet a pressing public-health need.

The province’s reluctance to be transparent about its PPE supplies now puts Manitoba in a very difficult position: one of the reasons we have been relatively successful at containing the COVID-19 outbreak has been the effective use of PPE in health-care facilities. However, as those supplies are reduced, so, too, is our capacity to contain the virus.

Currently, health-care workers in personal care homes and other non-hospital facilities, as well as community-based physicians working in private clinics, are having trouble getting PPE they need to protect themselves against the virus. That is a troubling scenario, made worse by the provincial government continuing to create the impression that if a problem exists, it can be solved by spending more money.

More money does not guarantee more PPE. The province and public-health officials should, at the very least, be up-front about the reality of PPE availability. False hope won’t protect anyone from anything.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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