Doctors Manitoba filled a need when PPE supplies ran low.

By Ashley Smith

When the pandemic hit, the medical community braced for the worst. Infection control guidelines were issued that required PPE to be worn more often. Global demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) immediately hit supply chains hard.

Early on, senior Shared Health officials and the Province of Manitoba assured hospitals and community-based clinics that supplies would be available for everyone. But it wasn’t long before doctors weren’t getting what they needed. Regular suppliers had no stock. Shared Health offered to accept orders from community-based physicians, but the ordering experience was uneven.

A survey of Manitoba’s physicians in April, less than a month into the pandemic, exposed the distressing need for PPE: 43 percent of physicians didn’t have the recommended eye protection and 58 percent didn’t have the recommended gowns. Many reported they were operating without a two-week supply of masks, gloves or sanitizer. Among those who ordered PPE from Shared Health, only 36 percent reported receiving their order, and 50 percent said the shipment was incomplete.

Sensing the increasing risk to physicians, Doctors Manitoba took on a new role to help.

There was no time to waste when physicians were at risk,” recalls Theresa Oswald, CEO of Doctors Manitoba. Hundreds of doctors on the front line of this pandemic were left without the protective equipment they required when they needed it most. Without it, they had to choose between risking infection or delaying their patients’ care. There was only one thing to do. Get doctors their PPE – stat!”

But there was one problem: tracking down PPE supplies was near impossible, even for an Association representing over 3,000 physicians in Manitoba. So, Oswald reached out to the community for help. With material supplied by the Louis Riel and River East Transcona School Divisions, 35 volunteers fired up their sewing machines to produce 400 gowns and many more masks in a matter of days.

An ordering process was set up for physicians and Doctors Manitoba staff became distributors, picking up supplies from volunteers who were in lockdown, and packaging up orders for hundreds of doctors and support staff on the front line of the COVID-19 fight.

The initiative of teachers, retirees, cancer survivors, and Hutterites were soon joined by local manufacturers to make gowns in bulk quantities. Doctors Manitoba collaborated with Richlu Manufacturing, Art Upholstery, and Valley Fashions to produce hundreds more gowns.

Soon, Doctors Manitoba was able to access medical- grade PPE from select suppliers, and later through the Manitoba Department of Central Services, which offered select PPE on a cost-recovery basis.

To date, Doctors Manitoba has filled orders for PPE from 150 clinics, large and small, in all five of the province’s health regions. Between April and October, doctors have received over 600 face shields and goggles, 9,000 pairs of gloves, and 13,500 medical and cloth masks.

Not being able to secure masks from anywhere, I turned to Doctors Manitoba for some advice,” explains Dr. Unni Nair, an anesthesiologist. Instead they were able to supply me with masks and personally delivered some to my door. I’m thankful for the team at Doctors Manitoba for taking care of their members in our hour of need.”

Despite a decrease in orders for supplies through Doctors Manitoba’s system, there’s a long winter ahead, and the fight against COVID is far from over. Pressures on the supply chain and suppliers’ limited capacity have caused the cost of some PPE to skyrocket and delayed delivery. This puts additional strain on already over-burdened physicians.

Doctors shouldn’t have to make tough choices about safety,” says Oswald. We want our members to know that Doctors Manitoba will do whatever it takes to get them the support they need. Every step of the way.”