OTTAWA — As federal officials grease diplomatic wheels to ensure shipments of medical supplies make it to Canada, others are also working hard behind the scenes to navigate the increasingly challenging logistics of procuring critical COVID-19 equipment from foreign countries.
Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand gave a shapshot Tuesday of the work going on in countries like China and elsewhere during the worldwide scramble for surgical masks, gowns, hand sanitizer and ventilators by countries facing shortages.
The market for personal protective equipment has become fluid and evolving, and every day Canada is "aggressively ordering" in this marketplace, Anand said.
"We are doing absolutely everything we can, day and night, in a challenging international context," she said.
During this period of high demand, placing an order does not guarantee delivery, which is why Canada is now taking "very serious steps" on the ground in certain countries to ensure the products it does buy meet requirements and actually arrive.
"We work diplomatically and we work collaboratively, but we are aggressive in terms of ensuring that the supplies make their way back into Canada," Anand told a media briefing in Ottawa Tuesday.
For example, officials at the Canadian Embassy in China have been tasked with working diplomatic channels to ensure Canada's orders are delivered on schedule.
Meanwhile, the federal government has also hired private firms to help on the ground with quality assurance, in-country logistics and arranging transportation.
Quality assurance has become necessary in light of emerging cases of counterfeit masks and other protective equipment turning up in the hands of health-care workers around the world — including Canada.
The City of Toronto announced Tuesday it is recalling $200,000 worth of surgical masks that were distributed to long-term care homes after it received reports of ripping and tearing and discovered the masks don't meet its specifications for such equipment.
Officials are now trying to figure out how many long-term care staff were caring for patients while wearing the masks and if there was any exposure to COVID-19.
Anand says once supplies are obtained and authenticated, Canada is arranging its own transportation, including two planes that brought in a shipment from China this week.
"With hundreds of millions of pieces of equipment ordered, this is a complex undertaking even as those supplies arrive in Canada," Anand said.
To ensure the goods are quickly distributed to provinces and territories, the federal government has entered into an agreement with Amazon Canada, which will use its distribution network to deliver supplies together with its key partners, Canada Post and Purolator. Amazon is doing this work at cost without profit, Anand said.
Canada has faced challenges sourcing supplies from its closest trading partner after U.S. President Donald Trump signed an order preventing medical manufacturing companies from diverting scarce personal protective equipment from the U.S. to other countries.
A heavy lobby from Canadian officials did result in a shipment of 500,000 N95 masks from Minnesota-based 3M bound for Ontario that is set to arrive Wednesday.
But Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said while the development involving 3M is positive, more shipments from other U.S. companies are still pending.
"We are working collaboratively with our American partners to be sure that those shipments also make it to Canada just as our American partners are working collaboratively with Canada to ensure that the medical supplies and services that the United States depends on from Canada can continue to flow to the United States," Freeland said.
In the meantime, Canada is expecting more deliveries from China in the days to come. The federal government has ordered more than 230 million surgical masks, including over 16 million that have already been delivered. Canada has also ordered 113,000 litres of hand sanitizer, most of which is expected to be delivered this month.
Canada may be operating in a challenging global marketplace, but officials are working tirelessly to ensure these critical supplies get to front-line health care workers caring for COVID-19 patients, Anand said.
"We are determined to make sure that supplies get back to Canada once they are ordered and procured. That is our main task and we wont stop until we get it done."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 7, 2020.