CALGARY — While fears mounted that Canadian medical personnel could encounter a shortage of masks, gloves and gowns in their fight against the coronavirus pandemic, the Canadian federal and provincial governments have spent a month securing new supply chains for critical protective and medical equipment.
On Saturday, the first of soon-to-be many flights from Shanghai arrived on a Cargojet Inc. plane carrying over 80,000 pounds of medical personal protective equipment (PPE) arrived in Hamilton, Ont.
Mississauga-based Cargojet had not previously flown to China, but will make another medical supply run for the federal government, two for the Alberta government and two for the British Columbia government as new supply chains for medical equipment are established during the pandemic.
“We could be looking at anywhere from an average of four to five flights a week in and out of China for the next three to four weeks,” said Ajay Virmani, president and CEO of Cargojet, who added that governments and companies across Canada have worked incessantly over the last month to establish new supply routes for Canadian medical supplies.
Virmani said the big push to source additional PPE for medical personnel started well before U.S. President Donald Trump ordered St. Paul, Minn.-based 3M to stop exporting N95 masks to foreign countries including Canada. At that time, both Alberta and Ontario raised the possibility of a mask shortage.
The U.S. government did allow the export of N95 respirators to Canada but the situation highlighted the need to establish new supplies for domestic hospitals, clinics and seniors facilities.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the federal government had chartered flights from Cargojet and Air Canada to deliver millions of masks needed in the fight against the virus and highlighted the importance of logistics workers. “I want to take a moment to thank everyone, whether you’re working in a warehouse, flying the plane of part of the ground crew,” Trudeau said.
Establishing these new supply chains has been time-consuming, arduous work for governments and companies, Virmani said.
“There is tremendous pressure on buyers to have boots on the ground in China because the Americans mostly are beating us to the punch. They’re buying anything and everything in sight,” Virmani said, noting there’s a bidding war underway for key medical supplies.
It took a month of dedicated work but Canadian governments have established or strengthened channels in China to source medical PPE, winning bidding wars as the pandemic continues and countries around the world struggle to source supplies.
Companies, meanwhile, are required to abide by very strict protocols as they fly in and out of China, the country where the covid-19 outbreak began in the city of Wuhan at the end of 2019.
Virmani said his company has identified a team of 10 to 12 pilots who will make the trips to and from Shanghai. When they arrive at the airport, Chinese government officials perform a coronavirus test, then escort the pilots to a hospital where they are required to rest for 15 hours as they await their test results.
If the pilots test positive, they will be required to stay in China under isolation for 14 days.
Additional precautions have been taken to ensure that as critical supplies are shipped across borders during the global pandemic, logistics workers are kept safe.
“At the end of the day, the supply chain is like a human chain. If the supply chain is going to break down, it’s because of the human chain. There’s so much precaution here on that – it’s like preparing to go to war,” Virmani said, adding that members of his team are wearing masks, gloves and sometimes face shields as they work.
In the coming week, Virmani said his crews will be making the trip back to Shanghai to secure additional supplies for Alberta and British Columbia.
“We have recently signed contracts totalling more than $200 million and these contracts will include tens of millions of gowns, millions of N95 masks, tens of millions of procedural masks and many other products,” Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro said at a Saturday news conference, adding the supplies were coming from “companies from all across the globe.”
Shandro said the provincial government had scaled up the number of acute care and intensive care beds and ventilators in the province to the point it had “more than enough to meet the projected demand for hospital services during the peak of the virus.”
As a result, Shandro said the province is in a position to “look beyond our borders and help provinces that may be struggling.”
The province announced it was sending 250,000 N95 masks, 2.5 million procedural masks, 15 million gloves, 87,000 goggles and 50 ventilators to Ontario as well as a similar number of masks and gloves to Quebec and 250,000 N95 masks to B.C.