OTTAWA — Canadian hospitals should not throw out used face masks and other protective equipment because public health officials are investigating whether it will be possible to disinfect and reuse them, Canada's public health chief said Sunday.
In her daily briefing to Canadians, Dr. Theresa Tam also said chief medical officers are working on recommendations to the general public for the best uses of homemade face masks.
Tam said "every stop is being pulled out" to keep front-line health workers safe in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak. In Ontario alone, nearly 275 front-line health workers have tested positive for COVID-19. In Italy, one of the worst-hit countries by the novel coronavirus, almost one-tenth of the people with COVID-19 are health care workers.
While Canada continues to try and secure new shipments of face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) both from domestic and international manufacturers, Tam said trying to find a way to reuse the masks and equipment the country has is also important.
"I think it is one of the most important and I think worthwhile lines of pursuit for PPE right now," she said.
Tam said part of the solution is science, to figure out how decontamination can happen. She also said there are "multiple entities" in the country that could do the decontamination work once the science is clear.
But for now she said keeping the used equipment somewhere safe is a necessity.
"Also then signalling to provinces and territories that certain things shouldn't be thrown away right now, so that we can actually implement this should we find the actual people who can do this," she said.
Earlier Sunday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he is confident Canada will succeed in convincing the United States not to ban exports of protective equipment to Canada.
"I am confident we are going to be able to solve this," Trudeau said.
Canada is focusing its efforts on proving to the Americans how much Canada provides to its medical system, including doctors and nurses who cross the border to work in American hospitals in border cities like Detroit. Canada also exports raw materials used in the production of face masks to the United States.
President Donald Trump has invoked the Defense Production Act, a Korean War-era U.S. law that provides the power to redirect U.S. manufacturing capacity in times of national crisis, to compel American producers of PPEs and ventilators to ramp up their production and prioritize orders for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
3M, one of the country's largest producers of the medical-grade face masks known as N95 respirators, said in a statement Friday it had been told by the White House to stop exporting the equipment to markets in Canada and Latin America — a charge the White House has denied.
Late Friday, the White House issued a statement that suggested the purpose of its order was to target what it called "wartime profiteers" —"unscrupulous brokers, distributors and other intermediaries operating in secondary markets."
Such parties could include "some well-established PPE distributors with the ability to unscrupulously divert PPE inventories from domestic customers, such as hospitals and state governments, to foreign purchasers willing to pay significant premiums."
"Nothing in this order," the statement concludes, "will interfere with the ability of PPE manufacturers to export when doing so is consistent with United States policy and in the national interest of the United States."
Media reports suggest Trump and trade adviser Peter Navarro singled out 3M after a Fox News report accused the Minnesota-based company's American distributors of selling its masks to "foreign buyers" that were outbidding U.S. customers.
Trudeau said he wasn't going to answer hypothetical questions about Canada retaliating if the U.S. does prevent shipments to Canada, but said Canada will do whatever it takes to protect Canadians.
He also noted that Monday is the first day people who are out of work because of COVID-19 can go online to apply for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. It offers Canadians who lost their jobs up to $2,000 a month.
Trudeau says it will take three to five days for the money to arrive by direct deposit or 10 days by mail.
Only those born in January, February and March can apply Monday. The rest of the months will go in order in groups of three on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday before it opens to everyone on Friday.
Trudeau says the government is doing everything it can to prevent the system from crashing.
— With files from James McCarten in Washington.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press