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In the span of 48 hours, the province told teachers to stop wearing medical face masks it supplied them, announced an internal investigation deemed the expired equipment was safe — then recalled the decade-old products.

Manitoba has handed out nearly four million Technologists Choice-branded disposable medical masks to staff working in sectors including education, child care and health care throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

In recent weeks, wearers in schools have reported rashes, foul smells and a series of quality control issues related to the masks.

"Out of an abundance of caution, all (Technologists) Choice brand masks currently in circulation should be pulled from existing stock. All stock will be replaced with an alternate product," states a Shared Health recall alert published Tuesday.

The alert indicates the masks were procured for the purposes of the H1N1 response in 2009, and have been stored in temperature controlled warehouses since. They were approved for distribution in the spring, and while concerns were raised about skin irritation in the summertime, the masks were again deemed "acceptable for use," it states.

Bio Nuclear Diagnostics Inc., the company that manufactures the masks, confirmed its product’s recommended shelf-life is three to five years from the date of manufacture.

"BND does not support the sale or distribution of masks older than five years," Cherisse Kirk, contract manager at Toronto-based company, said in a statement Tuesday.

Kirk said the company has no data or test results to support the extension of shelf-life of masks stored at a controlled temperature.

The province maintains the masks are safe to wear while alternate supplies are located and distributed.

"A mask that is itchy and causing people to constantly touch it and adjust it is not safe," Lori Morton, an educational assistant in Winnipeg, told the Free Press.

Morton said her face turned red and blotchy after she started wearing one of the masks consistently two weeks ago, prompting her to start doubling up with a cloth mask underneath. (Even still, Morton said, the medical masks continued to irritate her skin.)

Public health officials have advised anyone with adverse reactions to the face coverings wear another brand of medical mask or temporarily use a non-medical cloth mask. Replacements are expected later this week, according to Shared Health.

A box of expired masks that were given to education workers in Winnipeg. (Mikaela Mackenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

A box of expired masks that were given to education workers in Winnipeg. (Mikaela Mackenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Educators alerted the province about staff health and safety concerns about the equipment over the weekend. On Sunday afternoon, administrators were told to set aside tens of thousands of the light-blue masks until the matter was investigated.

The next day, Manitoba Education sent a notice advising the equipment was safe to use, following a review and approval by Shared Health Services’ infection prevention control and occupational and environmental health and safety.

The province announced its U-turn Tuesday morning.

"We want our people to be safe and those (masks) were sent out, and they’re coming back," Lanette Siragusa, chief nursing officer at Shared Health, said during a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

Dion Delorme, president of Educational Assistants of Seven Oaks, called the situation "absolutely ridiculous."

"If we're talking so much about the health and safety of students in schools and Manitobans, why is there this much disregard in sharing the facts?" Delorme said, referring to the masks’ expired status and earlier complaints about skin irritation.

Delorme penned a scathing letter to the education minister Tuesday about his concerns on behalf of his co-workers who are required to wear medical masks because they cross cohorts during the school day.

In the letter, he expresses frustration about communication and the fact the province asked divisions to find savings in the spring, which amounted to many educational assistants being laid off, and now these staff have been repaid with outdated supplies.

Thomas Tenkate of Ryerson University’s School of Occupational and Public Health said while best-before dates on personal protective equipment can be conservative, general practice is to use both the "precautionary principle" and follow manufacturer guidelines.

The keys to ensuring equipment is safe include: buying reputable supplies; understanding storage instructions; proper training on use; correct fit and adjustment; and timely maintenance.

Storage can impact a product’s lifespan, the associate professor based in Toronto said, noting the odd smell Manitobans reported could signal the mask had absorbed other substances.

"This sort of situation really undermines people's confidence in PPE and using it," he added.

Now, Tenkate said, officials will have to start rebuilding that trust in order to ensure people are using the proper masks properly.

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.

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