Canada looking to disinfect used masks, don’t throw away: Tam

Public health chief notes importance of looking for ways to reuse equipment the country already has.

April 6, 2020   by Mia Rabson

Screening for COVID-19.
Photo: Getty Images

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.

Dr. Theresa Tam said chief medical officers are working on recommendations to the general public for the best uses of homemade face masks.

While she has not yet suggested people should wear non-medical face masks when they go out, she said her office is working on generating advice for what people should do if they choose to wear a homemade mask, including what materials are best to use.

However, Tam still stressed homemade masks are to keep people who may have the virus from spreading it to others and do little to protect people from getting the virus. The medical masks that can offer protection must be reserved for medical staff, Tam said.


For front-line health care workers, having access to N-95 respirator masks is critical. Thousands of Italian and Spanish health professionals contracted COVID-19 while treating patients and unable to get access to proper protective equipment. In Italy, more than 50 doctors died of COVID-19.

In Canada, the number of infected health workers is growing, with 274 known cases in Ontario health workers alone. Tam said it’s important to note not all of the health workers who are sick contracted the illness while at work, but said “every stop has been pulled out” to get the critical supplies to the workers who need them.

That now includes not just increasing domestic production and finding ways to get more imports in a competitive global environment, but also finding a way to reuse the equipment the country already has. She said the science to decontaminate equipment meant for single-use only is being done and in the meantime she is directing provinces and territories not to throw out the equipment, so when the science is ready it can be applied immediately.

“It is one of the most important and I think worthwhile lines of pursuit for PPE right now,” Tam said.

More than 14,400 Canadians have now tested positive for COVID-19, and the number of deaths climbed above 258 April 3.

In Quebec, which has recorded the highest number of confirmed cases of any province, Premier Francois Legault extended the planned closure of non-essential businesses until May 4, from the initial planned date of April 13, saying “the battle is far from over.”

Most Canadians have been isolating at home for three weeks now, with the prospect of many more weeks, and likely months, before the restrictions ease.

The stress of the measures played out at a Walmart store in Sherbrooke, Que., April 3, leaving one of the store’s security guards fighting for his life, after a man who was told only one person per vehicle was allowed in the store at a time, allegedly rammed his car into the guard and dragged him several metres.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he still intends to speak directly with US President Donald Trump about the issue of protective equipment exports from the US to Canada but said he is “confident” the issue will be solved.

The White House said April 3 an order to 3M not to export masks to Canada or Latin America was to target what it called “wartime profiteers” and “unscrupulous brokers, distributors, and other intermediaries operating in secondary markets.”

“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.”

Trudeau also noted Ottawa is preparing to launch its new Canada Emergency Response Benefit April 6, a new $2,000 a month program for Canadians who have lost their jobs or are otherwise unable to work for any reason connected to COVID-19.

Canadians can begin applying on April 6 for the new benefit, which is replacing employment insurance for most COVID-19 related jobless claims. To try and prevent the website from crashing under the weight of millions of applications, Canadians are being asked to apply on different dates based on their month of birth.

Canadians born in January, February and March can apply on Monday to start, and then Tuesday claims are open to those born in April, May and June, Wednesday for those born July, August or September and Thursday is reserved for people born in October, November or December. Friday, Saturday and Sunday will be open to all.

— With files from James McCarten in Washington.