From Manitoba to China: Donated masks will help front-line workers battle coronavirus

Thousands of sorely needed protective masks are at a Winnipeg UPS store, ready to be shipped to front-line health-care workers at a hospital in northeastern China in the midst of a coronavirus outbreak.

The Manitoba chapter of Not Just Tourists had more than 5,000 N95 small particulate masks donated months ago because they were considered surplus, donation co-ordinator Dolores Friesen said.

“That is the type of mask you need to use to protect yourself if you’re working with a virus such as the outbreak that’s going on in China right now,” Friesen said.

“We had several boxes of these masks just sitting there, not sure how we were going to get these masks ever used.”

Not Just Tourists pairs travellers with suitcases of surplus medical supplies such as gauze, syringes and surgical instruments to take with them wherever they go. While they’re on vacation, they drop off the suitcase at a clinic or hospital registered with the organization.

Up until now, there wasn’t much demand for these particular masks.

Not Just Tourists is sending N95 masks to a hospital in Hebei province. The small particulate masks are hard to get in China right now. (Submitted by Dolores Friesen)

Then Friesen, who is a nurse, heard from a former colleague and friend, Dr. John Ducas, a St. Boniface Hospital cardiologist who volunteers with an organization called Bethune Bai Qiuen Canadian Alliance, which provides health-care support for hospitals and clinics in China.

A doctor Ducas has worked with a number of times got in touch recently, desperate for N95 masks.

More than 1,700 health-care workers in China have been infected with COVID-19, including five who died. The novel coronavirus has spread widely throughout China, even though Chinese New Year celebrations were cancelled and the government has promoted hand-washing, wearing medical masks and seeking immediate medical attention.

Earlier this month, the World Health Organization announced a chronic shortage of gowns, masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment in every region, but especially China. 

The WHO is working to distribute the equipment to those who need it, and health-care workers are the first priority.

Although the hospital the masks are going to isn’t in Wuhan, the epicentre of the epidemic, it’s still in need, Ducas said.

“It’s at least 500 kilometres away, but that doesn’t stop a virus,” he said.

“This is a relatively large hospital. There’s lots of people in and out of there. This is a potential hazard to the health-care workers and to the patients. There are Chinese health-care workers that have gotten this infection and have died.”

‘Horrendous’ to be without

Friesen knows first-hand how important personal protective equipment is. She was a nurse in a Winnipeg intensive care unit when serious respiratory illnesses SARS and H1N1 were on the minds of Manitobans and claiming lives around the world.

“I can understand how important it is to get these supplies in the hands of the people that need it, like, right now,” she said.

“I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be doing that and not have enough supplies to protect yourself.… That would just be horrendous.”

Medical workers pump oxygen for a new coronavirus patient at a hospital in Wuhan in central China. (Chinatopix/The Associated Press)

The boxes of masks are at a UPS store in Winnipeg, waiting to be shipped out, as Ducas sorts out the customs rules with his colleagues in China.

The masks likely would be thrown away if it wasn’t for Not Just Tourists.

“These are supplies that would have been thrown in a landfill here and instead, they’re now going to be repurposed for something really important,” Friesen said.