Jan 27, 2020 - Science

Coronavirus fears spark run on surgical face masks in U.S.

A woman wears a protective mask in New York City.

A woman wears a protective mask in New York City on Jan. 23, amid mounting fears about the spread of coronavirus. Credit: Timothy A. Clary/Getty Contributor

Despite reassurances from public health officials that Americans don't currently need to wear face masks as a precaution against coronavirus, many drug stores are selling out.

Why it matters: While it's not clear how much protection the masks offer, manufacturers are seeing a spike in demand, and the potential spread of the virus in the U.S. is being monitored closely — and spooking out a lot of people.

Where it stands: There are severe shortages of surgical face masks in China, where people are being encouraged to wear them. While there have only been a handful of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S., people aren't taking any chances.

  • Stores are selling out of face masks in cities like Chicago and New York, as well as in California and other places.
  • "The biggest thing I’m seeing is people buying them to send them back to China,” one Manhattan pharmacist told the New York Post.
  • There was a similar run on face masks in the U.S. in 2009, when the H1N1 virus hit.

But, but, but: So far, the Department of Health and Human Services says there's no need for Americans to panic. While coronavirus "poses a very serious public health threat, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) believes the immediate risk to the U.S. public is low at this time," an HHS spokesperson tells Axios.

  • "However, we fully expect that in the coming days and weeks, we will see more cases of this new coronavirus here in the United States and globally," HHS said.
  • The agency's Strategic National Stockpile "holds millions of face masks as well as N95 respirators that could be used if needed in responding to a public health emergency when local supplies are exhausted and aren’t available from commercial suppliers," HHS said.
  • "We also have medical teams, along with their equipment and supplies, ready if needed to augment local healthcare resources in an emergency response."

Nevertheless, "Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, is asking Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to declare a public health emergency to free up money for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to battle the virus before it becomes an American pandemic." ABC News reports.

What they're saying: U.S. manufacturers and distributors of face masks are being circumspect about the situation. Of the half-dozen contacted by Axios about whether they were ramping up production or seeing big increases in orders, some declined to comment and others gave tight-lipped responses.

  • "We’ve seen a recent increase in demand for masks through our dental and medical distribution business in Asia and in the United States," said a spokeswoman for Henry Schein, a medical supplier based in Long Island. "We are actively engaged and monitoring the situation with our manufacturing partners to anticipate and meet customer needs."
  • Medline Industries, a giant, Illinois-based healthcare supplier: "We are prepared to ramp up capacity of relevant products should the CDC issue actionable recommendations."
  • Medline also noted: "At this time, the CDC has only released interim recommendations for preparing to deal with the impact of the coronavirus."

The bottom line: People are masking up, but it's still a wait-and-see situation that everyone's monitoring closely.

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