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Critical personal protective equipment for front line health care workers in B.C. is gathered in a Langley warehouse, where it will be verified by clinical teams before it can be distributed to hospitals that have been rationing PPE for weeks.

Courtesy of Provincial Health Services Authority​

In a warehouse in Burnaby, a trove of life-saving medical safety gear is piling up.

Crates of face masks, surgical gloves and goggles – critical personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers on the front lines of the pandemic – are being amassed here, waiting to be distributed to health care workers around the province.

B.C. hospitals – like hospitals around the globe – have been rationing PPE for weeks. But it turns out the supply chains are not broken, if you have the right connections. The provincial government has turned to the private sector for donations to help restock what it has been slow to secure on its own.

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The donations gathered in just two weeks include 10 million face shields, five million surgical gloves, 500,000 goggles and five million N95 respirator masks. Thousands of offers are still being evaluated, including those from local manufacturers that are prepared to retool and produce needed supplies.

Health care workers face the frightening reality of limited supplies of PPE for their work with patients sick with COVID-19.

“The level of stress is very, very high,” said Val Avery, president of the Health Sciences Association, which represents some of the health professionals in acute care. Workers are having to justify their need for masks and other protective gear as employers seek to avoid running out. “Some of [the workers] are not going home to their families, because they just don’t want to risk exposing partners and children to what they may have been in contact with."

B.C. is just one small bidder in a competitive, international race to restock supplies, but some major industries based in the province have well-established sources.

Forestry and mining companies, for example, have long-standing relationships with Chinese manufacturers of protective gear necessary for their operations. Teck Resources is one of more than 100 donors that have stepped up. Using its own network, the international mining company secured one million respirator masks that are expected to arrive in the province in the coming weeks.

“Demand for these products is fierce, however we were able to leverage our strong network of partnerships and suppliers to identify these supplies,” Teck spokesman Chris Stannell said in a statement. He declined to say just how those masks were procured: Guarding the names of suppliers now qualifies as a trade secret.

However, tapping into unconventional sources creates its own challenges.

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All these supplies gathered by the COVID-19 Supply Hub have to be sent to a Langley facility, where the Provincial Health Services Authority is testing to ensure the supplies are legitimate.

Amid the competition for this equipment, some manufacturers have increased their prepandemic prices by a factor of 10. Counterfeit items are a risk. And normal supply chains are not reliable: Some shipments to Canada of U.S.-made N95 respirator masks were stalled in early April when U.S. President Donald Trump moved to block sales to other countries, including Canada.

The typical path of an N95 respirator mask sitting in the Supply Hub warehouse begins in a Chinese factory. The packaged product goes to a warehouse in Shanghai, monitored by a freight logistics company to ensure it is labelled in accordance with Chinese laws regarding the export of medical supplies. Customs officials for China first review the paperwork and then inspect the goods. This process will take a few days, at a minimum.

If Chinese customs approves, the packages are placed on cargo flights – it is more expensive than shipping by sea, but there is no time to wait. Upon arrival in Canada, the cargo is inspected again, this time by Canada customs, before being released to the province.

It is up to the Provincial Health Services Authority to verify that no counterfeit or substandard goods have slipped through. Occupational Health and Safety and clinical teams have to test and approve the supplies before they can be added to inventory and, finally, delivered to health care workers.

“There’s supply out there, but you have to buy big amounts and be prepared to pay more,” said Jonathon Karelse, a global supply-chain expert and CEO of NorthFind Management.

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Mr. Karelse was able to get 10,000 surgical masks delivered to a Metro Vancouver hospital within eight days, using his long-standing connections developed through his work for a vitamins and supplements manufacturer that requires PPE for its normal operations.

“In February, we started to hear that surgical masks and N95s, both of which we use in our production facilities, were starting to go up in price,” he said. He was given quotes that were 10 times the normal prices, but shopped around and ended up paying a little more than three times what he normally paid.

“The capacity is there, but prices are going up because they’re smelling an opportunity," Mr. Karelse said. Negotiating right now is like nothing he’s experienced before. “It is literally people on their mobile phones, texting, WeChat-ing, e-mailing. ... It’s like bartering or horse trading.”

The COVID-19 Supply Hub was launched at the start of April. The provincial government partnered with the Digital Technology Supercluster and the Business Council of British Columbia to create an online platform to co-ordinate, source and expedite medical supplies and PPE for provincial health authorities.

“It’s like the entire world is wanting to get these supplies,” said B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth, who oversees the project. “And it is buyer beware, in the sense that you don’t get to send stuff back. And that is obviously a challenge, so you do have to inspect and make sure that everything is up to the proper standards.”

For now, B.C. is relying heavily on supplies from China, but he said one of the goals of the Supply Hub project is to develop domestic manufacturing capacity.

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Mr. Farnworth said the project, driven by such desperate need, is unlike anything else he has done in almost three decades as an MLA.

“This will be the most significant thing I have been involved in, in that time. Nothing else comes close.”

Now that it is recommended you wear a face covering in dense public settings like grocery stores and pharmacies, watch how to make the three masks recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Written instructions available at The Globe and Mail

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.

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