Ottawa Hospital rationing surgical masks to avoid shortage

The Ottawa Hospital is asking staff to limit themselves to two surgical masks per shift as it prepares for an anticipated influx of patients with COVID-19.

In a memo sent to all hospital staff Wednesday evening, CEO Jack Kitts said the new policy follows discussions with the Ontario government and other hospitals in the province.

"Our review was guided by the principle that changes must consider the impact on staff safety, and the judicious use of masks to reduce the possibility of undersupply later, when risk becomes more widespread and higher," Kitts wrote.

The disposable face masks that are being rationed offer the wearer some limited protection against airborne particles that can carry the novel coronavirus. They're normally discarded after a single use.

'We will have to adapt'

Kitts said the policy doesn't apply to staff who treat suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients. Those workers wear full gowns, gloves, N95 masks and face shields, all of which must be discarded after a single use.

"This change is intended to reduce the risk to all health care workers posed by the general population," he wrote in the memo. "As this outbreak evolves risks will change, and we will have to adapt."

Hillary Johnstone/CBC News

In a separate statement Thursday, The Ottawa Hospital said it's following the guidance of local and national public health authorities, the Ministry of Health and its own infection prevention and control team.

"We understand that in some circumstances, staff will require more than 2 masks per shift. We have been providing regular updates to staff, and will continue to do so," the hospital wrote.

Mixed message, ONA says

The Ontario Nurses' Association (ONA) has been lobbying for greater access to personal protective equipment (PPE) for its members, regardless of where they work.

Local ONA president Rachel Muir worries The Ottawa Hospital's new policy could prevent nurses from fully protecting themselves on the job.

"What we are advocating for is the precautionary principle, that every nurse use their clinical and nursing jugement to assess each patient," Muir said. "If it's a [nurse's] opinion that more PPE is required, she should have access to that."

Muir said Kitts's memo sends a mixed message about potential shortages.

"On recently as Wednesday were told us there are stocks available, and now they're telling us two masks per shift. This is the sort of thing that is causing fear and confusion," she said.

QCH raising money for supplies

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said any decisions to ration PPE are being made by hospitals, not mandated by the government.

"The hospitals are making the decisions with respect to what their frontline health-care workers need. We are continuing to send supplies to them," Elliott said Thursday.

The Ottawa Hospital's director of emergency management, Dr. Andrew Wilmore, said there have been large donations of personal protective equipment from the community. Anyone looking to donate PPE can contact the hospital at a special email address

On Thursday, Ottawa's Queensway Carleton Hospital launched a donation drive to purchase more PPE.

In a video, an unnamed doctor says: "We are soon to run out of supplies that will keep us going and help us care for you and your loved ones."