Canada blasts U.S. block on 3M exports of masks as coronavirus cases set to soar

OTTAWA/TORONTO (Reuters) - Canadian officials on Friday blasted a move by President Donald Trump to block 3M Co’s export of N95 respirator masks for use by doctors and nurses as coronavirus cases were projected to soar in the country’s most populous region.

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Ontario health officials projected 80,000 coronavirus cases and 1,600 deaths in the province by month end under current public health measures, and urged people to restrict their movements.

Ontario has reported 3,255 confirmed cases and 67 deaths.

Late Thursday, Trump slammed 3M in a tweet after earlier invoking the Defense Production Act to get the company to produce protective face masks. N95 masks, essential for protecting healthcare professionals from breathing in the coronavirus, are in short supply.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said blocking the flow of medical supplies across the border would be a “mistake.”

He said such a move could backfire, and he noted that Canadian healthcare professionals go to the United States to work in Detroit every day. Canada and the United States closed their common border to all non-essential traffic earlier this month.

Asked whether Canada would retaliate if the U.S. blockade goes ahead, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said Ottawa would “do whatever it takes to defend the national interest.”

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3M said on Friday it would boost respirator production and import more masks into the United States, and it warned that blocking exports could result in retaliation by other countries that could ultimately reduce the amount of equipment available.

Deaths surged to 208 from 127 on Thursday while positive cases rose to 12,375 from 10,132, according to provincial announcements compiled by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

Ontario Premier Doug said on Friday he had spoken to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer about the Trump administration move to block 3M exports of masks.

“The health and well-being of our frontline workers depend on these essential medical items and now more than ever our countries need to work together to combat COVID-19,” Ford said on Twitter.

On Friday Ontario halted all industrial construction, except for critical projects, and banned new residential construction to limit social contact.

Separately, Trudeau said Amazon Canada will manage the distribution of personal protection equipment to the provinces.

Trudeau said Quebec has requested that the Canadian Armed Forces be sent to northern communities to assist isolated and remote communities in managing the coronavirus outbreak.

($1 = 1.4127 Canadian dollars)

Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Bill Berkrot and Cynthia Osterman