Jan 27, 2020

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

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.

Go deeper

Senators question coronavirus' impact on U.S. drug supplies

A Thai surgical mask factory, producing 10 million masks a month, increased working hours to cope with the rising demand following an outbreak of SARS-like virus in China. Photo: Jonathan Klein/AFP via Getty Images

Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) sent a letter Thursday to the Food and Drug Administration asking for assurance that the coronavirus won't affect the supply chain for American food, pharmaceuticals or medical supplies.

The big picture: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has already asked U.S. health care providers and the public to not stock up on medical masks and other supplies while the risk of coronavirus inside the U.S. remains low.

Go deeperArrowFeb 7, 2020 - Health

World coronavirus updates: Recoveries exceed 300,000

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

China has lifted its lockdown of Wuhan, where the novel coronavirus outbreak was first reported, as other governments around the world tighten restrictions to stop the spread. Global recoveries surpassed 300,000 on Tuesday.

The big picture: COVID-19 has killed over 82,000 people and infected 1.4 million others globally as of Tuesday, per Johns Hopkins data. Spain has reported the most cases outside the U.S. (more than 141,000) and Italy the most deaths (over 17,000) as half the planet's population is now on lockdown.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 47 mins ago - Health

CDC confirms 7th coronavirus case in the U.S.

Passengers traveling to Ghuangzhou, China takes precautions by wearing masks following an outbreak of the Coronavirus in China at Addis Ababa Bole International Airport on January 31, 2020. Photo: Luke Dray / Stringer/Getty Images

A 7th coronavirus case has been confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention where a man in the San Francisco Bay area became ill after traveling from Wuhan, China back to the U.S., the Santa Clara Health Department said Friday.

The big picture: Federal health officials expect more cases to be confirmed while the CDC continues to test cases and as state health departments remain on high alert. The U.S. on Friday declared a public health emergency and restricted travel based on the new virus's ability to spread from person-to-person.

Go deeper: Coronavirus: The latest developments