People around the world are buying face masks to protect themselves from the new coronavirus that's been spreading across China and to other countries, potentially threatening providers' ability to access masks to use in clinical settings.
Reports of the new coronavirus first surfaced in early December 2019 in Wuhan, China. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the main symptoms of the virus, called 2019-nCoV, are fever and lesions in both lungs. Some patients also have reported difficulty breathing, WHO said.
As of Wednesday, health officials in China had reported 24,613 confirmed cases of the virus. According to Becker's Hospital Review, there were 494 reported deaths linked to the virus as of Wednesday. The disease has spread to at least 20 countries, but vast majority of confirmed cases have been in China, with the Hubei region, which includes Wuhan, seeing the highest case count. Outside of China, there have been at least 217 reported cases, according to the report from China officials.
Purchases of face masks rise, leading to shortage
The spread of the virus has prompted dramatic increases in purchases of face masks, with some pharmacies reporting they're completely sold out, the New York Times reports. Other sellers are backordered for the products.
Alexandra Brown, a spokesperson for Walgreens Boots Alliance, said both Walgreens and Duane Reade pharmacies have seen increased demand for face masks and hand sanitizer, and that the company is working "to meet the needs of our customers."
Anita Pate, senior adviser for pandemic medical care with CDC's influenza coordination unit, said, "We see panic ordering and buying that doesn't reflect the actual need." She continued, "We're talking to manufacturers. They understand the situation, and I'm confident that they are being responsible. The health care industry is their biggest customer."
Do face masks actually work?
While mask sales are spiking, it's not clear whether everyday citizens will benefit from their purchases.
Different types of masks offer different levels of protection. For example, N95 respirator masks, a heavy-duty type of face mask often worn by health care professionals, offer the most protection, according to Richard Seidman, the chief medical officer of L.A. Care Health Plan.
But those masks can be "difficult to wear," according to William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University Medical Center. The masks are designed to form a tight seal on the wearer's face, and according to Schaffner, some may find it harder to breathe wearing N95s, but "that's the kind of protection that really works."
Peter Rabinowitz, co-director of the University of Washington MetaCenter for Pandemic Preparedness and Global Health Security, said a mask shortage is a frightening thing in the wake of a pandemic. "I worked through the 2009 H1N1 flu epidemic at Yale Hospital, and we ran out of N-95 masks—and being in a high-risk situation without enough masks is not a good feeling," he said. "There's no rational reason why everyone needs to run out and get masks. Public health officials should be talking about this."
When it comes to cheaper, surgical masks, any research suggesting these masks provide a level of protection against inhaling viruses "is very, very meager," according to Schaffner. "The general sense is perhaps, but they're certainly not an absolute protection."
Meanwhile, Amy Shah, an allergy and immunology doctor, said, "The regular kind of mask you'd find online is not all that helpful against any kind of virus. Is it bad? No. It's not like it's harmful. But will it completely protect you? No. The best thing you can do is wash your hands frequently—with water and antibacterial soap for at least 20 seconds—and to keep your immune system up."
As for cloth masks, which are typically washed and reused and are common in Asian countries, Raina MacIntyre, an infectious disease researcher and professor of global biosecurity at the University of New South Wales, said there's no evidence showing they have any benefit, and instead, "may actually be harmful."
CDC does not currently recommend the general public wear masks. However, it does recommend that those being evaluated for the virus, those confirmed to have the virus, and household members and caregivers of those with the virus, wear face masks.
CDC also advises that all health care workers treating patients with the virus take additional precautions, such as wearing goggles or face shields (Johnson, AP/ABC News, 1/30; Godoy, "Goats and Soda," NPR, 1/29; McNeil Jr., New York Times, 1/29; Japhe, Washington Post, 2/3; Hamblin, The Atlantic, 1/30; China's coronavirus report, accessed 2/5; Masson, Becker's Hospital Review, 2/5).