Newmarket-based Dentec Safety Specialists Claudio Dente said he feels angry seeing the supply situation for N95 masks amidst the rise of the COVID-19 omicron variant.
The safety products business has been manufacturing the now coveted masks for years, primarily at a Kansas plant to date. They developed a reusable N95 mask that Dente said he believes could be a solution to supply issues for frontline workers, versus using disposable versions.
But after more than a year of failed efforts to secure Canadian or provincial contracts to supply, he said he is frustrated.
“We have a solution that works. I could be producing it here,” he said. “I feel the calls from doctors and nurses and parents of doctors and nurses crying for products … I know the solution and I can’t get it to those people.”
N95 masks have increased in popularity with the rise of the much more infectious omicron variant. Governments are working to procure more masks for frontline workers such as educators and health-care staff, but local businesses have also expressed interest in the higher-quality mask.
Dente said he attempted to apply through the Ontario Together Fund in 2020 to start manufacturing masks in Newmarket but was rejected. He said subsequent efforts to contact federal and provincial governments have not led to anything.
He argues that his masks could last for months and have for the few Canadian hospitals that have directly ordered them. The United States government has been more immediately receptive, with a multi-million U.S. grant, delivering more than 100,000 masks for them.
“Dentec stepped up to produce personal protective equipment to protect our communities from the threat of COVID-19,” Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly said in an August news release. “We appreciate their commitment to protecting Kansans and Americans through their services.”
Ministry of Government and Consumer Services spokesperson Matteo Guinci said the government is focused on domestic sources for procurement and has agreements in place for 50 million level one and level two protective masks per year for the next five years.
"These companies are now providing masks to essential service providers across our province with a secure, local supply they can rely on," he said. "These are Ontario-made solutions to an ever-growing global concern that will support our effort to reopen the economy and ensure we are never again left to depend on unreliable global supply chains for critical goods needed for the health and safety of Ontarians."
Dente pleaded his case at a chamber of commerce information session Jan. 10, attended by Newmarket-Aurora MPP Christine Elliott and MP Tony Van Bynen. Van Bynen said they could have a separate discussion on the matter.
"It’s great to see the innovation we’re seeing in Newmarket, and I’d love to be able to capture that for our community," he said.
Newmarket Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Chris Emanuel added it is important for health products like these, whether masks or rapid tests, to get produced domestically.
Newmarket safety equipment distributor International Safety — which sell Dentec products, among others — has also seen the demand increase. General manager Gus Khouri said it is a challenge to pivot regularly to different products in demand in the pandemic, but they have tools to predict and manage it.
Khouri said the firm's interactions with government agencies are limited, with some departments receptive and others hard to get information from.
"It's been a mixed bag," he said, adding he would like more opportunity. “I would like more people to try us. I would invite government officials, don’t write us off.”
Although N95 masks may be hard to find, Khouri said his company could provide them for Newmarket businesses and individuals, with free shipping for Newmarket and Aurora addresses.
Dente said action to increase manufacturing on the masks should have happened months ago. But he said he will keep pushing to make his product more readily available.
“I will not stop. I believe that I have the best solution at the time, something that we need. Our people need it, and I will not stop until I can get this product into the marketplace here in Canada,” he said. “I have no problems in the United States, and that’s what’s disappointing to me.”