Many Americans worried about the coronavirus outbreak in China are scrambling to buy face masks in case the disease spreads closer to home.
The surgical masks — covering a person’s nose and mouth — are a constant grim accessory on the streets of Chinese cities, prompting people in the U.S. to stock up, even though the masks may not offer much benefit and there are no recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to wear them outside of health care settings.
But U.S. doctors and nurses — who would need masks if there were an outbreak — could face a shortage of the devices. While the country has stockpiled 30 million N95 respirators — tight-fitting masks that can filter out viruses — it's estimated 300 million would actually be needed to protect health care workers, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar testified before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Tuesday.
That number is based on the need to regularly swap out used masks, Azar said.
COVID-19 — the new coronavirus — is a serious public health threat, the CDC warned in an update on Feb. 25. But the immediate health risk is low for members of the general U.S. public who are unlikely to be exposed to the virus, the agency noted.
Still, some pharmacies in New York posted signs noting surgical masks were sold out.
There were empty shelves where face masks should be in other parts of the country, too.
In an effort to prevent price gouging, Amazon has been warning some sellers of face masks that they're "not in compliance" with its pricing policies, Wired reported.
Some hospitals are also reporting visitors are surreptitiously taking face masks put out for patients to use during flu season.
“We have a huge epidemic of coronavirus anxiety in the U.S. and this purchasing and use of masks is a symptom of that,” Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told TODAY.
“This is the desire of individuals to have some control.”
Tempted to buy and wear a mask? Here’s what you need to know.
Is there a benefit to wearing a face mask to prevent infection?
“Given that the coronavirus and the influenza virus are similar in their ways of transmission, isn’t it interesting that the CDC does not recommend here in the U.S. that we wear masks during every influenza season?” Schaffner noted.
“The answer is simple: Namely, the CDC makes recommendations based on scientific evidence and scientific evidence supporting the use of masks of any kind in the general community… is sparse and not very solid.”
Masks are very important in the health care setting when doctors are taking care of sick patients, said Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.
Do the thin surgical masks offer any benefit?
The experts had differing views.
Surgical masks are designed to keep what’s in the surgeon’s nose and mouth out of the surgical field, but they’re not designed to prevent viruses from being inhaled through the mask, Schaffner said.
Americans are at an exceedingly low risk of acquiring [coronavirus], they should not be taking masks from health care facilities.
In other words, these masks may protect others from your germs rather than protecting you from theirs.
When worn correctly, a surgical mask sits firm around a person’s cheeks, nose and chin, but it’s not a tight seal and it’s relatively easy to breathe through the mask and around the edges.
But Doron said a surgical mask is adequate to prevent droplet transmission — the kind seen with respiratory viruses — in both directions.
It should be replaced when it’s wet because it doesn’t work properly then, Doron said. Anyone who has ever worn a scarf around their mouth and nose in winter knows the fabric grows wet quickly because of the effect of the warm breath.
In a health care setting, doctors change their surgical mask every time they leave the room, Doron noted.
What mask does the CDC recommend for doctors and nurses?
For health care workers in contact with coronavirus patients, the CDC recommends a more specialized type of mask — one that is individually fitted to a person's face to create a seal and that filters out 95% of particles that are at least 0.3 microns in diameters. (A micron is 1/1,000th of a millimeter.) This type of mask is called an N95 respirator.
These devices are thicker than a surgical mask and doctors are trained how to put them on correctly and fit-check themselves to make sure the seal around the nose, cheeks and chin is tight so there’s no air leakage around the edge, Schaffner said.
“When you wear those N95 respirators, you’ll immediately discover that the work of breathing is much harder,” he noted. “It’s actually claustrophobic to some people and over time, it gets warm and moist in there.”
Schaffner has trouble wearing this type of mask for longer than 30 minutes, so wearing it for eight hours a day would not be feasible for most people, he said.
If this type of mask gets warped in some way, you have to replace it, he added.
What do doctors want you to know about wearing face masks?
The best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to this virus, the CDC said. In the U.S., a person’s risk of acquiring the coronavirus is very close to zero, Doron noted.
"At the moment, what we have told people is stay alert, remain educated, wash your hands," Schaffner said.
Doron called the run on face masks in the U.S. a serious public health issue.
Tufts Medical Center usually makes surgical masks freely available to the public at its entrances during the flu season, but it has stopped doing so because people have been removing them in large quantities since the virus outbreak in China, she said.
“The drug stores are out so people all over the country are taking them from hospitals and they’re not taking into consideration the very strong negative effect that could have on the care of patients,” Doron said.
“There is no recommendation to wear a mask. Americans are at an exceedingly low risk of acquiring the infection, they should not be taking masks from health care facilities.”