U of T donates masks, gowns and other critical supplies to health-care workers combatting COVID-19

A worker lifts boxes of personal protective equipment supplies amidst stacks of other boxes
U of T has so far collected more than 250,000 pairs of gloves and nearly 12,000 masks and respirators to donate to its hospital partners (photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)

The University of Toronto is scouring labs across its three campuses for masks, gloves and other badly-needed protective equipment to donate to health-care workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis.

The university has so far collected more than 250,000 pairs of gloves and nearly 12,000 masks and respirators to give to its hospital partners in the Toronto Academic Health Science Network.

The supplies are being distributed according to an ethical framework developed by U of T’s Joint Centre for Bioethics, which prioritizes health-care providers who face the highest risk of exposure. 

“There’s a lot of eagerness to help wherever possible,” said Vivek Goel, U of T’s vice-president, research and innovation, and strategic initiatives. “If we have excess supplies anywhere in the city or in the province, we should really be working to get those to front-line workers so they are protected.

“They are literally putting their lives on the line; we have to do whatever we can to support them.”

The World Health Organization has warned about a global shortage of protective gear caused by rising demand, panic buying and hoarding. Health-care workers in some hard-hit countries are already being forced to treat colleagues who become infected during marathon shifts of treating COVID-19 patients. In Italy, for example, the National Federation of Orders of Doctors and Dental Surgeons has published a list of doctors who have died on the job, with more than 60 names and counting, while in Spain, health-care workers represent 14 per cent of confirmed coronavirus cases, according to the New York Times.

(photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)

In Canada, front-line staff are running low on protective equipment just as they prepare for a surge of COVID-19 patients. In response, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called on universities and other post-secondary institutions across the country to donate masks and ventilators, and the provincial government is urging local businesses to help where they can to address shortages. 

At U of T, individual researchers and departments across the three campuses, in fields as varied as dentistry, chemistry and ecology and evolutionary biology, have made available boxes of much-needed protective equipment.

U of T Mississauga’s department of chemical and physical sciences has pitched in with 5,200 pairs of gloves while the department of biology has set aside surgical masks, N95 masks and more than 30,000 gloves from teaching and research labs.

U of T Scarborough, meanwhile, has collected tens of thousands of medical supplies including masks, gloves, gowns and paper towels. 

“It’s just the beginning of the pandemic and our hospitals are having trouble keeping critical safety supplies in stock,” said Holly Yuen, U of T Scarborough’s environmental health and safety manager.

“It’s encouraging to see our community coming together during these extraordinary times to show that we care for and support our essential medical workers who are on the front line fighting against COVID-19.”

stacks of boxes with one box with the writing bio/toronto mask item n95 on the side

(photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)

Some protective equipment is being kept in reserve by U of T for researchers who are undertaking critical work related to COVID-19 or other time-sensitive research. That includes everything from developing COVID-19 medicines and better testing methods to modelling disease transmission.

Some equipment is also being preserved for residence staff, cleaning staff, environmental health and safety workers, campus police and health and wellness employees so they can continue their work safely.

Other Canadian universities, including McGill and McMaster, have also collected medical supplies for local hospitals, as have universities in the U.S. including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

(photo by Patrick Lam)

U of T’s donation is just one element of its larger effort to limit the toll of the deadly virus, which has infected more than 750,000 people around the world, according to Goel.

He noted the university has dramatically changed the way in which it works to help “flatten the curve” of the pandemic by cancelling in-person classes and moving to online or remote learning. 

U of T also launched a fund last week to support research that’s likely to make a rapid and tangible contribution to the fight against the virus.

Note: This story was updated on March 31, 2020 with new figures about the number of gloves and masks collected.

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