Most people don’t know how to use face masks correctly, and a rush to buy masks could prevent the people who need them most — health care providers — from getting them, said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a scholar at the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The CDC said last week it doesn’t recommend people use face masks, making the announcement on the same day that first case of person-to-person transmission of coronavirus was reported in the U.S. There were 11 confirmed cases in the U.S. as of Tuesday.
“The virus is not spreading in the general community,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the Center for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a Jan. 30 briefing. “We don’t routinely recommend the use of face masks by the public to prevent respiratory illness. And we certainly are not recommending that at this time for this new virus.”
Americans don't seem to be heeding the CDC’s advice: Walgreens and Duane Reade pharmacies have seen increased demand for face masks and hand sanitizer across the country, said Alexandra Brown, a spokeswoman for Walgreens, which owns both chains. “We continually and closely monitor these types of situations to ensure that we have sufficient supply of those products,” she said.
CVS has also seen a surge in sales of face masks. The demand “may cause shortages at some store locations and we’ll re-supply those stores as quickly as possible,” said Stephanie Cunha, a CVS spokeswoman.
Adalja applauded the CDC’s recommendation on face masks. “Even during H1N1 [flu epidemic], there was no recommendation to wear face masks,” he said. They “end up creating a false sense of security and most people don’t wear them appropriately,” he added.
People not in the medical field who wear the masks often come in contact with germs when they lift the mask up to eat or slip their fingers under the mask to blow their nose, he said.
Panic-driven demand for face masks, Adalja said, is particularly worrisome because it could have “a negative supply shock” effect on hospital personnel who need these masks more than the general public.
“The best ways [for the general public] to protect themselves are the basic hygienic measures,” he said. That includes washing your hands regularly and covering sneezes and coughs. But if you are “sick and need to go out you should wear a mask.”
Instead of wearing face masks, Messonnier said that the general public should “be vigilant to the symptoms and signs of this novel coronavirus, that is, a fever and cough, and if you have those symptoms, please call your health-care provider.”
Moving forward, the CDC expects to see more cases of person-to-person spread of coronavirus, Messonnier said. “We want our actions to be evidence-based and appropriate to the current circumstance,” which she said did not justify the use of face masks for people who have not been directly exposed to the virus.
There are still many unknowns about how this strain of coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, spreads, but when person-to-person spread has occurred in the past, “it is thought to have happened via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, similar to how influenza and other respiratory pathogens spread,” the CDC said on its website.
Face masks are often worn to protect against these germs, and in China, two provinces require them to be worn in public. Factories in the country are working 24 hours a day to meet the demand, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Last week Alibaba-owned retailer Taobao reported sales upward of 80 million face masks a day. The company has urged sellers not to hike the price of the masks being sold despite rampant demand.
In a recent coronavirus update, the World Health Organization gave instructions for how to appropriately wear and dispose of face masks. WHO also noted, “However, the use of a mask alone is insufficient to provide the adequate level of protection and other equally relevant measures should be adopted.”
WHO advises people who wish to wear a mask to place the mask “carefully to cover mouth and nose and tie securely to minimise any gaps between the face and the mask,” avoid touching the mask while you’re wearing it, and dispose of masks as soon as they become damp or humid. When removing the face mask, WHO recommends that people “do not touch the front but remove the lace from behind.”
As of Tuesday, about 20,000 people had been infected and 425 had died in China, according to health officials in China.
The CDC did not respond to multiple requests for comment on whether they still advise the general public to refrain from wearing face masks.