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Ontario faced a shortage of personal protective equipment at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in part because it did not replenish its stockpiles over the previous years, an independent commission examining the impact of the health crisis on long-term care has heard.

Ontario’s former deputy minister of health and long-term care, Bob Bell, told the independent commission that the province’s supply of personal protective equipment should have been refilled around 2017 or 2018, under the previous and current provincial regimes.

Bell, who served as deputy minister for four years until mid-2018 and now chairs an advisory panel for the Revera chain of nursing homes, said there was no conscious decision to let the stockpiles dwindle. The issue simply fell through the cracks, he said.

“In the midst of everything else that goes on in government, the decision to replenish stockpiles was not undertaken as an affirmative action kind of thing that should have been done,” he said in his Dec. 21 testimony that was posted online recently.

He also said the move to destroy expired N95 masks was, in hindsight, “not a smart decision” because only the elastic posed a potential problem and the masks still had “ventilatory capacity.”

As a result, he said, there was not enough personal protective equipment in the provincial health system when the COVID-19 pandemic hit early last year, and skyrocketing demand made it difficult to obtain once the crisis began.

Meanwhile, a long-term care home in Toronto has hit 71 COVID-19 deaths after three more residents succumbed.

Tendercare Living Centre in the city’s east end now has one of the worst records in the province.

Nevertheless, the provincial government says it is confident North York General Hospital can manage the outbreak.

The province says the hospital has offered assurances that the needs of Tendercare residents are being met.

Dozens of other residents are still fighting the disease.

The province said last month North York General would help stabilize the situation.

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