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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, seen here during a news conference in Edmonton on Feb. 24, 2020, said the largesse was possible with impairing the province's ability to battle the coronavirus.

JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Alberta is shipping large batches of personal protective equipment to non-hospital workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic – many of whom have struggled to find supplies up to now.

While much of the focus has been on readying hospitals for a surge of patients, other health-care providers and workers who face exposure to coronavirus are also scrambling for equipment. The availability of such supplies came into sharper focus following Jason Kenney’s announcement Saturday that the province will send shipments of N95 respirator masks, surgical masks, goggles and gloves to British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec.

The Premier said the largesse was possible, without impairing Alberta’s ability to battle the virus. However, the plan irked health-care professionals including family doctors and other physicians concerned with having to buy high-priced, hard-to-find supplies on the open market.

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In an expansion of the work done by a centralized warehouse and distribution system, the province this week is sending personal protective equipment (PPE) to others, including midwives, first responders, pharmacists and family physicians. About 400 municipal first-responder agencies will receive one million masks and gloves. And more than 1.5 million masks are being distributed to seniors, and addiction and mental-health facilities.

Especially critical are the shipments of equipment to stop the spread at continuing care and supportive living facilities, where COVID-19 outbreaks have struck particularly hard. Of the province’s total of 48 COVID deaths, 30 have been residents at continuing-care facilities.

The day before Mr. Kenney’s announcement that equipment would flow to other provinces, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced all workers in seniors’ facilities would be required to wear masks when providing direct patient care, or when working in patient-care areas within two metres of others – placing new pressure on facilities to provide gear for staff.

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“Up until this past weekend, we had not been able to confirm the status of current availability of inventory with Alberta Health Services," said Wayne Morishita, executive director of the Alberta Continuing Care Association, which represents about 30 per cent of the province’s owners and operators.

“A number of our members have been purchasing from other suppliers, to make sure they had enough on hand," Mr. Morishita added, saying his members’ concerns have been largely addressed by AHS in recent days.

The government had said, in a model dated April 8, that under a “probable scenario,” Alberta would not have enough N95 respirator masks to meet provincial demand by the end of next month. Alberta estimated it would have an N95 inventory deficit of four days by the end of June.

This week, however, the province said it’s confident there are sufficient supplies of PPE to provide to all front-line health-care providers, as well other groups likely to face exposure to the virus.

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“We have the ability to scale and provide supplies to a larger group,” said Jitendra Prasad, the chief program officer for procurement and supply management at AHS. “Our network has really expanded.”

Mr. Prasad said his team procures products for all of AHS, giving it buying power it would not otherwise have under a decentralized provincial health system. The large volume of some of AHS’s orders, Mr. Prasad said, has translated into discount prices for some products despite global competition. AHS has not yet determined whether organizations that are new to its distribution system will have to reimburse the health authority. “Priority is to get the product out."

Mr. Prasad noted that the math around the province’s N95 respirator inventory changed as his team felt more comfortable that the orders it had previously placed would materialize.

This calculus also relies on health-care workers stretching the lifespan of certain equipment. Professionals both inside and out of AHS’s network are rationing and reusing supplies such as procedural masks. As well, Alberta has asked health-care workers to save used N95s as researchers examine whether it’s possible to sanitize and reuse the respirator masks.

“This will not be the only instance where we have these types out outbreaks,” Mr. Prasad said. “This is prudent planning for the future.”

Canada's chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam says before life can return to normal, officials need to be able to detect and stamp out new outbreaks of COVID-19. The Canadian Press

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