We are one year into the pandemic that led to a drastic increase in the need for personal protective equipment, but at least one local business that stepped up to produce much-needed PPE says it's being left behind while the provincial government looks outside Ontario for production.
Mediguard Systems of Canada is a Barrie-based manufacturer of ASTM Level 1, 2 and 3 surgical masks.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the Churchill Drive company started manufacturing and installing acrylic and polycarbonate barrier systems in businesses who needed them.
As the need for Canadian-made PPE became high in demand, Mediguard completely retooled its south-end location, and installed a Class 100,000 (100,000 particles per cubic feet) clean room. A clean room is any contained space where provisions are made to reduce particulate contamination and control other environmental parameters, such as temperature, humidity and pressure.
The company also secured a raw material supply chain in the urgent response to the federal and provincial governments' request for domestic PPE.
Mediguard chief executive officer and director of operations John Bond told BarrieToday there were tenders with very tight timelines for production start-up. That placed the responsibility for the management of the provincial strategic stockpile of surgical masks for the provincial health-care system directly on the shoulders of the five manufacturers that had been awarded five-year deal.
“These companies, such as ourselves, have invested hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars into retooling, raw materials, certification of our finished products, clean rooms, rent, research and development and training without so much as a dime in assistance,” Bond said. “All in order to respond to the public health crisis and establish businesses in the wake of losing our old ones due to this pandemic.”
Mediguard has a diverse product line, including Barrie-made medical-grade surgical masks, North American-made surgical N95 masks, Health Canada-authorized antigen and antibody rapid testing solutions, patient transfer services, and workplace rapid testing services.
Bond said the federal and provincial governments procurement processes are favouring overseas producers under existing contracts they had pre-pandemic that have sometimes been responsible for the introduction of counterfeit and non-compliant PPE which has been distributed into Canadian health-care systems while domestic manufacturers are getting the short end of the stick.
“We have been put in a bad position. They needed Canadian manufacturers and they needed them quickly, so we invested in that. We built that infrastructure and we did it with our own money in a pandemic, “ said Bond. “We are being held out to dry.”
Bond said many PPE manufacturers were not eligible for the COVID business support loans offered by the government because we were all new. Some companies are struggling.
“I have had two small manufacturers contact us trying to sell us their stock and equipment because they got zero support from the government,” said Bond. “They screamed for production and failed thus far to support the industry they screamed for in their time of need.”
BarrieToday contacted the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services for comment. A spokesperson said the ministry launched Supply Ontario to stabilize access to a high-quality supply of critical products for the public sector, including PPE.
“Supply Ontario will take advantage of Ontario’s manufacturing might, create opportunities for businesses, and stimulate economic growth right here at home," the unnamed spokesperson said in an emailed response. "It will open up opportunities for Ontario manufacturers, entrepreneurs, and innovators of all regions and sizes to enter the playing field and bid for projects to supply our province, as they have done so heroically during the pandemic.
"Most importantly, it will ensure that schools, hospitals and the entire public sector always have the supplies and equipment needed to keep our province safe and secure," they added.
Bond said it was “laughable” that the ministry would state Supply Ontario helps anyone, while the provincial government takes advantage of small industry and eliminates many ministry procurements.
“The centralization of procurement will allow them to issue massive public tender opportunities where they will drive down the cost of the profit, make qualifying prerequisites so substantial that only the largest of manufacturers will possess the capability to logistically service the opportunities, and will drive down contract consumer price point tolerances so low that small companies will not be able to compete,” said Bond.
“By propping up the larger players and supporting mass production at heavily discounted prices, even the smaller tenders that would come out will never be awarded to the small and medium guys, because they will have already established a low consumer price point tolerance for the product. The big guys still win," he added.
The ministry says “74 per cent of the forecasted PPE spend for the next 18 months will be with Ontario- or Canadian-based manufacturers.”
Bond says he still has numerous questions regarding the ministry's stance.
“With who, is my first question," he said. "And when they say with Ontario or Canadian manufacturers, exactly how much of Ontario’s PPE will be purchased in other provinces when you have the largest concentration of manufacturers in Canada here?
"How much of that 74 per cent is going to other provinces and where is the other 26 per cent being procured from? Why are they not using the resources that are here in place right now?”