Surgical Masks Are Selling Out Because of Coronavirus Fears—but Do You Really Need One?

Leave medical-grade masks for health professionals, but consider wearing a simple cloth mask.

Only hours after the first case of coronavirus was detected in the US in Seattle on January 21, surgical masks reportedly began selling out in pharmacies in Washington State. As the number of confirmed cases in the US began to multiply, panic buying ensued as people stockpiled masks in Los Angeles and made "runs on pharmacies" in New York, BBC News reported. And now healthcare providers in areas where coronavirus is rampant are dealing with severe shortages of these protective items.

What began as six confirmed coronavirus cases in a handful of states just two months ago has become a tsunami. The US now leads the world in the number of people who've contracted the virus, SARS-CoV-2, which causes the illness officially known as COVID-19.

Understandably, people are worried. But will wearing a surgical mask really protect you from this coronavirus?

Probably not, Andres Romero, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, told Health at the onset of the US epidemic. "Based on the current available information, we can't say surgical masks help prevent contracting coronavirus," said Dr. Romero.

Now, though, it's clear that close contact with people who have COVID-19 can cause person-to-person transmission, primarily through exposure to respiratory droplets that people produce when they cough, sneeze, or talk, says the CDC. And recent studies suggest people who are infected but do not have symptoms can also pass along the virus.

When treating a patient with a known or suspected COVID-19 infection, health care providers are being advised to put on a particulate-filtering N95 respirator or, if one is not available, a face mask before entering a patient room or treatment area. CDC's latest update of guidelines for health personnel acknowledge that these items are now in short supply.

"Special care should be taken to ensure that respirators are reserved for situations where respiratory protection is most important, such as performance of aerosol-generating procedures on suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients or provision of care to patients with other infections for which respiratory protection is strongly indicated," says CDC.

The N95 mask "provides a closer fit to the face and more effective filtration of airborne particles," says Dr. Romero. The CDC also recommends that health care workers wear eye protection, gowns, and gloves.

To slow the spread of COVID-19, the CDC is recommending that members of the general public wear a basic cloth mask or face covering when they're around other people, President Trump announced during the Coronavirus Task Force briefing on April 3. But public health officials stress that Americans should not purchase medical-grade surgical masks or N95 respirators, which would only deplete dwindling supplies.

"Masks are acts of altruism; you are not protecting yourself by wearing a mask," Rochelle Walensky, MD, chief of the infectious diseases division at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School told reporters during an April 3 briefing held by the Infectious Diseases Society of American. Masks prevent people who are asymptomatic from spreading the virus to others.

Until there's a vaccine to prevent this coronavirus, your best bet is to follow standard hygiene practices (including frequent hand washing) and maintain a six-foot distance from other people.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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