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Labour + Industry

Prices Are Soaring for Supplies to Keep Frontline Workers Safe

Gouging or market forces? Even those selling essentials aren’t sure.

Andrew MacLeod 4 May 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of All Together Healthy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018). Find him on Twitter or reach him at

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, a box of 50 disposable masks from one British Columbia supplier cost less than five dollars. Now Alert First-Aid Inc. is charging $79.99 for the earloop masks, designed so health-care workers looking after someone with an infectious disease like COVID-19 can use them once and discard them.

Despite the astronomical increase, that price is no longer unusual. A Toronto supplier, Dental Market, has a comparable product listed at $99.99 for a box of 50.

And Consumer Protection BC, the regulator given the task of cracking down on price gouging, heard from a senior who paid a hardware store $400 for two boxes of disposable surgical masks.

“She felt she had no other choice as her husband requires care 24-7 and is quite vulnerable,” spokesperson Tatiana Chabeaux-Smith said in an email.

Jennifer Lyle, CEO of SafeCare BC, an industry-funded non-profit focused on the safety of continuing care workers, says prices have jumped for many items needed during the pandemic.

“We’ve seen some significant price spikes in everything from hand sanitizers to surgical masks,” she said. “One care home that we spoke with about a week ago was looking at about a 900-per-cent increase in [the price of] surgical masks, for example.”

Despite the province’s efforts in recent weeks to stamp out price gouging, high prices persist for personal protective equipment. It can be hard to know whether that’s a reasonable adjustment as supply chains struggle to meet the unusually high demand for essential products or if it’s opportunism.

Earloop masks, N95 respirator masks, KN95 masks, nitrile gloves, vinyl gloves, gowns, hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes have all seen spikes in prices.

Dental Market is advertising a 450-millilitre bottle of 70-per-cent isopropyl rubbing alcohol, a product that’s cheap to make and normally widely available for a few dollars, for $29.95. The Ontario company acknowledges on its website that prices for infection control materials are unusually high.

“Due to the overwhelming demand, suppliers are running out of the stock faster than usual, and to replenish it, they have to pay [a] higher price to the manufacturers,” the website says. “The manufacturing costs increase, as manufacturers have to increase productivity, [hire] extra staff, and pay more for materials, electricity, etc.... ”

Mike Lauterpacht, vice-president of operations for Dental Brands, the parent company of Dental Market, said various factors have driven up the prices of all kinds of products.

“We’re not talking double, we can be talking 10 or 20 times what it was pre-COVID-19.”

The cause isn’t nefarious, he said. “I don’t believe at times like this there’s someone sitting around saying how can I become a millionaire overnight and take advantage of literally people dying,” he said in an interview. “I do believe there’s a reasonable explanation for people who are willing to hear it as to why that same bottle [of rubbing alcohol] that used to cost $15, today I have to buy for $60.”

The biggest factor he sees is a shortage of the materials used to make the products. “At least what we’re told from the manufacturing facilities in China is there’s a shortage of raw materials,” Lauterpacht said. “That on a basic level has driven the price up.”

Then there’s the weak Canadian dollar, which lost about 10 per cent of its value after the pandemic started, plus the cost of shipping by air at a time when fewer passenger jets are flying and nobody wants to wait the time it takes to ship by sea. That’s gone up from about $2 per kilogram to $29 today, he said.

Also, with normal supply chains disrupted, in many cases more people have ended up involved in each deal. “The more hands that it touches, you know everyone just adds on another 25 cents or another dollar... but the price starts to go up.”

If Dental Brands wants to sell things and stay open, he said, it has to buy them from people who have them and pay the price that they are charging.

While he said he felt gouged by some of his suppliers toward the start of the pandemic, prices have since stabilized and he believes most people are being fair about what they charge.

It also helps that countries in Asia are reopening, Lauterpacht said. The Chinese province of Wuhan, particularly hard hit by COVID-19, produces 75 per cent of the world’s masks, he said, so when it shut down the supply shrank to a trickle. Malaysia produces most of the world’s examination gloves, but its output has been down 50 per cent since February.

Lauterpacht said he’s heard lots of complaints about prices from his customers and received a phone call from Consumer Protection BC recently. “Virtually every conversation I had with someone, it ended off with them understanding,” he said.

Kendall Salahub, the operations manager at Alert First-Aid, said in an email that the rise in prices the company charges reflects the increase in the costs it has to pay.

“Prices have dramatically increased across the board for these products, and this largely comes from the supplier due to worldwide demand overwhelming the available supply,” she said. “There are also increased costs associated with shipping — there are fewer flights available, so shipping is more unpredictable and expensive than it was pre-COVID.”

Normally Alert First-Aid runs first aid and Foodsafe courses in Vancouver and on Vancouver Island. With those in-person courses all cancelled it has managed to keep instructors employed working in the office, the warehouse and making deliveries of first aid and disaster supplies, she said.

In B.C. a ministerial order signed by Solicitor General Mike Farnworth defines price gouging as “an unconscionable price that grossly exceeds the price at which similar essential goods and supplies are available in similar transactions to similar consumers.”

Consumer Protection BC spokesperson Chabeaux-Smith said anyone who thinks they may have experienced price gouging can fill out a complaint form on the agency’s website.

The agency educates businesses and individuals about the law and works with them to self-correct when there’s been a complaint. In cases where there is no voluntary compliance enforcement officers can write tickets for $2,000.

By April 27 the agency had received about 1,850 complaints and about 40 per cent of them were about personal protection equipment or other medical supplies.

The agency couldn’t say whether any price gouging tickets had been written. “If we can’t get voluntary compliance, we refer the complaints to enforcement officers to determine whether a ticket be issued so we don’t have those numbers.”

SafeCare BC CEO Lyle said that it’s difficult to sort out what’s a legitimate increased cost and what may be price gouging.

During the pandemic the association has been seeking donations and identifying alternative suppliers. It has brought in some 700,000 items, including a significant number of surgical masks that the Delta Police seized from resellers.

Those items are available to organizations that may be outside the government’s supply chain, such as private care homes, licensed long-term care facilities working under government contracts and people managing their own care in the community through the Choice in Supports for Independent Living program, all of which are struggling to find supplies and cover rising prices.

“All of those factors, the cost of freight, raw materials, labour, overhead costs, are all coming to a head, and those cost-drivers are in some way shape or form being passed down, eventually, to the health-care system,” she said.

“It’s complicated, but I think at the end of the day there may be some bad actors out there who are profiteering off of this, and we certainly have seen some cases that look an awful lot like that, but I don’t think it’s everyone.”

The province is itself a major purchaser of personal protective equipment. In the last week the government has received five million pairs of gloves, 170,000 N95 masks, 100,000 surgical masks, 350,000 face shields or goggles and 85,000 gowns. That’s on top of three million N95 masks and 750,000 KN95 masks received the week before.

The giant increases in costs are a major challenge for organizations trying to maintain services during the pandemic, from care homes to social service organizations.

And as well as costs, the availability of personal protection equipment remains a challenge.

The BC Nurses’ Union said today that supplies remain “dangerously low” across the province.

The union said that since March 20 it had received more than 1,700 complaints from nurses concerned that health employers are unable to provide the gowns, gloves, face shields and N95 respirator masks needed to protect them and their patients.

Asked about prices last week, Health Minister Adrian Dix acknowledged the challenge but didn’t get into specifics. “I think it’s fair to say that the market is very different internationally than it was in December and January on prices,” he said. “I can tell you that it is a very, very challenging international market. It continues to be.”

The main concern now is to work with people in health care to make sure the supply the province has found fits well and works for them, Dix said.  [Tyee]

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