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The U.S. Surgeon General shared a stern message with the American public on Twitter Saturday.
“Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS!” the government agency tweeted. “They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”
Panic about the coronavirus is spreading more rapidly than the virus itself, and many are stocking up on masks designed to filter small particles. Businesses are sold out, while others are limiting how many a customer can buy. Amazon is policing its site, trying to make sure sellers don’t gouge panicked buyers.
Amid the run on masks, government agencies aren’t recommending the public wear them to protect themselves from the virus.
Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS!
They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!
— U.S. Surgeon General (@Surgeon_General) February 29, 2020
Within hospitals, surgical masks are worn by operating room teams — doctors, nurses, anesthesiologists — and frequently by pharmacists. Staff members caring for patients with dangerous infections, such as COVID-19, wear what are known as N95 masks. These have a close facial fit and more filtration material than surgical masks, enabling them to keep out at least 95% of particles, if used properly.
Health care workers go through training to learn how to fit and seal the N95 masks on their faces, according to both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
“The people who need these masks are the medical professionals who are treating coronavirus patients,” said Francis Zamora, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management. “They need to be prioritized for first-responders.”
Those who are sick in general and coughing should wear surgical facemasks (not an N95 one) if they have to be out in public to avoid spreading disease to others, according to the CDC and WHO. Anyone who is sick should make staying at home a top priority, but if you have to leave the house — to go the doctor, for example — a mask should be worn.
“Masks are only helpful, and I’m talking about surgical masks, if you’re already sick,” said Zamora. “If you have to be out, wear a surgical so you can prevent others from others getting sick.”
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Mask shortages are being reported around the glob and they’re being attributed not just to high demand, but to disruptions in supply: An outsize share of the world’s surgical masks are made in China — 50%, by its own estimate. But even factories there that have ramped up production say they are hard pressed to meet local demand. The government has taken over manufacturers, and exports have plunged.
Before the outbreak of the epidemic, we used to export 600,000 to 700,000 surgical masks a month, but now the amount is zero,” said David Peng, manager of Ningbo Buy Best International Trading Co. in Ningbo, south of Shanghai. The company’s dozen or so suppliers in Hubei, near the center of the outbreak, have been ordered to prioritize government orders.
Apart from shortages of workers, manufacturers say they are struggling to get enough raw materials to make the masks. Tony Zhou, sales manager for Suzhou Sanical Protective Products Manufacturing Co., said his company is asking overseas customers if masks can be delivered a few months later.
In the U.S., Walgreens, Home Depot, Lowe’s and True Value Hardware are reporting a sharp uptick in sales of masks over the past several weeks and say they are scrambling to get more from suppliers.
Home Depot, the nation’s largest home improvement chain, has limited sales of N95 respirators to 10 per person.
The virus has sickened more than 86,000 people worldwide and killed more than 3,100 around the globe, according to WHO.
Mike Ganio of the American Society of Health-Systems Pharmacists said some hospital pharmacies are saying that they have only a one- to two-week supply of masks and that the major wholesalers are unable to fill orders. Companies that make masks are struggling to keep up.
Medicom Group, a Montreal medical supply company, usually makes 150 million masks per year at its factory near Angers, France. At the beginning of February, the factory had orders for 500 million masks. Orders have only grown since then, the company said, and it has hired new workers and increased capacity at its plants, including two in Shanghai and one in Augusta, Georgia.
3M, the Minnesota-based manufacturer, said it has ramped up production of respirators at its facilities in the U.S., Europe, Asia and Latin America.
Taiwan manufacturer Foxconn, a major supplier of electronics to Apple, said it has begun making about 1 million masks a day for its own factories.
Dealmed, a New York company that makes and sells medical supplies, said it expects to sell out of face masks next week. It temporarily stopped taking orders from new customers a month ago and ended sales on Amazon and Walmart.com. It now is selling only to buyers that need them most, such as hospitals, doctors’ offices or government agencies.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Amy Graff is a digital editor with SFGATE. Email her: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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