08 May 2003 | David Arminas
Purchasers at the Toronto Emergency Medical Services (EMS) authority were given carte blanche to buy facial masks, gowns and gloves for protection against the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) virus.
The move averted a supply chain disaster but also meant paying more than double for some items.
Norm Lambert, deputy chief of operational support at Toronto EMS, which supplies the police, fire and healthcare services, told SM the normal rules for tendering and contract awards had been abandoned to cope with the surge in demand.
The policy was adopted as Sars cases continued to increase in the Far East and the World Health Organisation (WHO) advised people not to travel to Toronto because of a small number of victims in its hospitals.
But the WHO warning was later lifted after it became clear that Toronto had the spread of the virus firmly under control.
At the height of the scare, the Ontario provincial ministry of health told its purchasers to buy whatever they needed from whoever was offering it, despite fears that it could mean paying high prices.
The price paid by Toronto's purchasers for protective masks went up from about C$10 for a box of 20 masks to C$22 from some suppliers, although they refused to meet demands for up to C$50 a box.
But Lambert said there had been no shortages for medical staff and patients in the city's 24 hospitals and dozens of nursing homes, who are required by law to wear the protective clothing when transferring patients between hospitals and homes.
Ray Ellis, supervisor of material management supply at EMS, said C$2 million had been spent on more than 350,000 special masks, 500,000 surgical masks and 100,000 gowns.
"We have had to use four 48-foot articulated lorries parked up at our central depot to house the material," he said.
"But because we could move fast and buy large quantities immediately, we could also pick and choose suppliers. We walked away from those asking upwards of C$50 a box."
Lambert praised supplier 3M, which he said had sent letters to distributors threatening to cut them off if they raised their prices too steeply.