Thefts in hospitals lead to lockup of masks, protective gear amid COVID-19 supply shortage

Many hospitals across the country are being forced to keep precious supplies of protective masks, gloves and sanitizer under lock and key, in part due to fear of theft, CBC News has learned.

Health officials in Nova Scotia, Manitoba, Ontario and Saskatchewan confirm they’ve seen critical materials disappear from store rooms in recent weeks, forcing lockups and rationing as frontline health-care workers struggle to treat a surge of COVID-19 cases.

It’s unclear whether the misappropriated supplies are being taken to be used in healthcare settings, being shared with family and friends, or even being stolen to be resold on the black market; whatever the case it is putting added strain on a health-care system already facing major challenges.

“It’s a scary time,” said one nurse at the Guelph General Hospital in Ontario who says personal protective gear is now locked away after a reported theft several weeks ago.

She said staff are now required to ask permission to access the PPE, and that supplies are so critically low that nurses are being ordered to reuse surgical masks.

“They came in today and told us at the end of our shift to put our masks in a bag with our name on it to use again the next day,” said the nurse, who CBC agreed to not name as she fears reprisals for speaking publicly.

“I won’t do it. It’s ridiculous: makes me feel very unsafe and vulnerable.”

The Guelph General Hospital didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Disappearing PPE

CBC found cases of PPE disappearing from health-care facilities across the country, usually in small quantities.

Thefts in the early days of the outbreak have compounded the critical shortage of masks at Glengarry Memorial Hospital in eastern Ontario, according to emergency room doctor Melissa Yuan-Innes.

“Certainly in our hospital, people were taking the masks, they were stealing,” she said.


A machinist wears gloves to protect as she works to sew scrubs for the U.K.’s National Health Service in London on April 3. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/The Associated Press)

“We have Purelle dispensers in the hallways … Once or twice, somebody just took the Purell bag out of the dispenser and walked away with it.”

This week, the hospital imposed a “two surgical mask per shift” policy, she said. 

“You can’t have your masks on display because people can just take them,” Yuan-Innes said. “Then they were putting them in a back room and people would just walk in and take them. So they have to be under lock and key now.”

Yuan-Innes has organized a petition, signed by sixty-two other physicians, calling on the federal government to deliver more critically-needed PPE across Canada. 

She said colleagues at other hospitals are reporting similar problems.

Watch: COVID-19 masks and sanitizer stolen, says Ontario ER doc

Lock-up of masks, supplies comes after thefts of COVID-19 protective gear, says eastern Ontario doctor. 1:35

In Hamilton, hospital staff have been instructed not to bring any PPE home.

“There have been minor instances of inventory loss at Hamilton Health Science,” wrote hospital spokesperson Lillian Badzioch in an email. 

“We have communicated to staff and physicians the importance of having necessary PPE supplies to support patient care and warned against taking any PPE supplies outside HHS.” 

She said they’ve launched stringent measures to secure PPE supplies but still the pandemic has left their stock “severely diminished.”

Health officials in Halifax say they’ve had success in curbing losses of supplies after a “hard and fast” plea several weeks ago.

Watch: ‘Zero tolerance’ for PPE theft, warns Nova Scotia

A warning against PPE ‘hoarding’ in mid-March stemmed misuse, Nova Scotia officials said. 1:35

“I really need to stop and say with absolute seriousness that there is no way that anybody should be taking any equipment out of any of our facilities or supply areas,” the Nova Scotia Health Authority’s CEO Dr. Brendan Carr told a news conference on March 13. 

The NSHA told CBC in a statement Thursday that the warning “along with the implementation of strict PPE conservation measures, was sufficient in preventing any further overuse or hoarding.”

Frustration on the frontline

The strict rationing and controls are driving up stress among nurses who are both fearful of their exposure to COVID-19 but also find themselves having to argue with bosses to demand protective gear.

Health-care workers have a right to a safe workplace — including protective gear — said Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions.  


In this April 2, 2020 photo, a nurse at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle holds a medical face shield prior to the start of her shift. (Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press)

She said health-care workers are being put at risk by not being trusted to make decisions on how to protect themselves when dealing with patients who may be infected with COVID-19.

“We respected health-care workers in February to use their professional and clinical judgement on what they needed to treat a patient and what they needed to protect themselves,” said Silas. “Today we still need to do the same thing.”

She said theft is infrequent and PPE can be better monitored, instead of being locked up.

“If some are disappearing, deal with the disappearing through security measures,” said Silas, who says increased security or disciplinary action is a better course of action against theft.

“You cannot put a blanket policy that will put frontline healthcare workers in danger because of a box going missing.”

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