Face masks have become a hot commodity, selling out at numerous pharmacies and medical supply stores, including in the Washington area, because of fears of China’s coronavirus that is spreading rapidly across Asia and worldwide.
Chinese officials have reported more than 31,000 cases since the outbreak began in December. About two dozen countries have confirmed more than 260 infections, including 12 cases in the U.S.
Officials say the virus’ risk to Americans is low and that many people don’t use face masks correctly, but pharmacies and other stores say they can’t keep up with demand.
In Northeast Washington, the Reliance Pharmacy on Minnesota Avenue ran out of face masks last week because it didn’t have any backups at its warehouses.
A CVS store on Bladensburg Road hasn’t had face masks in stock for two weeks.
“We’re working with our suppliers to meet customer demand for face masks,” said Mary Owens, a company spokeswoman for CVS. “This demand may cause shortages at some store locations, and we are resupplying those stores as quickly as possible.”
An employee at Medical Supply Superstore in Alexandria, Virginia, who asked to remain anonymous, said the store ran out of supplies because all of its face masks are made in China, the country at the epicenter of the outbreak.
“They’re not making any masks because they’re keeping people away from work and not exporting them because people need them,” he said. “It’s going to be awhile until we get them.”
He said he has seen a higher demand for face masks since the coronavirus outbreak and gets about seven or eight calls a day from people who want to buy them.
Soaring demand reflects the global panic over the coronavirus, which can cause acute respiratory distress and organ failure. It has killed at least 633 in mainland China, one person in Hong Kong and one person in the Philippines who was a resident of Wuhan, the Chinese city in Hubei province where the outbreak began.
Chinese doctor Li Wenliang, a whistleblower credited with raising the alarm about a “SARS-like” virus in Wuhan in December, only to face resistance from police, was infected by the coronavirus and died early Friday local time.
Although the coronavirus panic has turned face masks into trending accessories, health professionals say they do little to protect against respiratory illnesses.
“Face masks have marginal value in preventing infection. They are loose fitting, and people often stick their hands underneath them to scratch their mouth or their noses,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security.
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, said the science supporting the idea that wearing face masks protects against respiratory illnesses is “very scanty.”
He said face masks aren’t made to stop the transmission of respiratory illnesses but to prevent surgeons from spreading bacteria from their noses and mouths to patients.
“They’re not designed to protect us,” Dr. Schaffner said. “The masks themselves are, relatively speaking, thin and the fit is not all that tight around the edges, so we breathe around the edges.”
The best way to avoid infection is to wash hands, avoid touching the face and get a flu shot, he said.
Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University, noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t encouraged Americans to strap on masks.
“The risk is too low in the U.S. to justify their use, and people are indeed hoarding,” he said.
D.C. Medical Supply and Uniforms along Georgia Avenue was one of the stores that still had face masks on its shelves Thursday, but they were selling out quickly.
The store sold about 700 masks in two days, said Rakhmel Rafi, the chief operations officer. He added that sales, demand and prices of face masks have risen because of “overbuying.”
A box of 50 masks used to cost about $10 to $15, he said, but now sells for $25 because of limited supply, higher demand and additional expenses from suppliers to ship the products to the store.
Mr. Rafi said he has been able to stock up but the masks sell out quickly. He estimates that five people a day visit his store to buy face masks, up from a couple of customers a week before the coronavirus outbreak.
On Tuesday, his store had 1,000 face masks in stock, but a steady string of customers and a large company that buys masks for export have reduced the supply to 300.
U.S. and global health officials said they are working to make sure labs and front-line workers don’t have shortfalls in the tools they need to identify and combat the coronavirus.
The CDC said Thursday that it is sending 200 kits to U.S. and international labs that want to test for the coronavirus. The kits can detect the virus from upper and lower respiratory specimens — saliva and mucus, basically — within four hours.
“Within just weeks of the outbreak’s beginning, CDC scientists were able to develop a test that is now being distributed to state and local health departments so they can confirm cases of the virus here in the United States,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Thursday in a State of the Department address.
Each kit can test 700 to 800 specimens from patients, according to the CDC, which plans to prepare additional kits.
The World Health Organization, meanwhile, has requested $675 million to combat the virus, especially in places that have weak health care systems and may be unprepared to respond to cases. Officials also want to make sure doctors and nurses are well-equipped to face patients.
“The last thing we need at this point is the front-line workers becoming victims themselves of this disease,” said Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s emergencies program.
WHO said scientists and public health agencies will gather for two days in Geneva next week to discuss the source of the virus and its genetic sequence. They will share biological samples and explore ways to fast-track diagnostic tests, vaccines and medicines.
WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus said scientists still don’t know the virus’ natural reservoir, where it typically lives and reproduces, and no vaccine or effective therapeutic is available for it yet.
“To put it bluntly, we’re shadow boxing,” he said. “We need to bring this virus out into the light so we can attack it properly.”
Dr. Li, the Wuhan doctor who reportedly died as a result of the virus, received an outpouring of praise for being one of the first people to shine a spotlight on the danger.
He told his former medical school classmates online about patients suffering from a mysterious pneumonia condition brought to Wuhan Central Hospital, which issued a statement confirming his death.
Critics of China’s response to the outbreak say the authorities’ decision to detain Dr. Li in January for “rumormongering” held back the response.
“Dr. Li Wenliang’s courage and professionalism make him a champion of the Chinese people and an enemy of the Chinese Communist Party,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican. “Let’s be very clear about this: Communism has been the perfect incubator for the coronavirus because the Chinese Communist Party fears transparency.”