Toronto doctor sounds alarm about medical mask shortage amid fears of COVID-19

A Toronto doctor is warning that a shortage of medical masks in the city could negatively affect the health of patients coming into clinics — as experts continue to try to spread the message that buying the masks won't protect people from COVID-19. 

Dr. Iris Gorfinkel said she's been paying for masks out of her own pocket and she's running into shortages — even for herself — as she treats patients.

"This is part of our standard operating procedure; we give them out in the waiting room," Gorfinkel told CBC Toronto on Friday.

"The concept here is that disease naturally concentrates on a doctor's office, so we want our patients wearing masks so that they're not risking other patients getting serious diseases. 

"What's a common cold to a 20-year-old could be a serious infection to someone who is over 65," Gorfinkel added.

'We've called all the major retail suppliers'

But the family physician said as of two weeks ago, her clinic has been out of masks and she has been placed on a waiting list to get new supplies.

"We've been on the waiting list now for two weeks from the medical supply stores and we've called all the major retail suppliers to try to get our hands on it … all of them were sold out, totally," Gorfinkel said. 

"In fact we were even laughed at on the phone when we requested, 'Do you have any N95s?' They literally laughed at us when we asked that question.

"The common surgical mask that costs usually around 10 cents a mask … that kind of mask is enough to protect our older patients," Gorfinkel added 

The N95 mask is a safety device that covers the nose and mouth and helps to prevent the spread of droplets. Gorfinkel uses them for her own protection and the protection of her patients.

Farrah Merali/CBC

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, medical masks have been in high demand, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.

Ontario Medical Association president Sohail Gandhi said the association has been working with its members to keep them informed, as a seventh person in Ontario tested positive for coronavirus.

"I sent a message to all of our members ... and I've informed the physicians that we have a website for our members and it talks about all aspects of this disease and it also has links in it about how to access appropriate amounts of medical supplies," Gandhi told CBC Toronto.

"We generally recommend to members that they keep a 10-day supply of masks and gloves on hand and if they're running into issues they can access the website though their portal.

"The information about COVID-19 is changing quite rapidly. What we knew two weeks ago is quite different than what we know now, so what we are endeavouring to do is to make sure that all of Ontario's doctors are up-to-date on treatment, on precautions that should be taken … and of course where to get supplies if necessary," Gandhi added.

CBC News contacted a dozen pharmacies in Toronto and Mississauga on Friday and they too were out of basic surgical masks — the ones Gorfinkel's office hands out to sick patients.