When a disease outbreak is ongoing, there are important things that uninfected people need to know and do, like washing hands. There are also things not to do, because they are mostly useless and actually interfere with proper care for people who need them. For most of us, face masks fall into the second category.
As we discussed earlier, surgical masks can help you stop spreading your germs to someone else, but they’re of limited usefulness in protecting you from coronavirus in the outside world. Respirator masks are a bit more effective, but unless you’re in a hospital or in a high risk area (like Wuhan) they’re overkill.
So what’s the harm? If supplies were unlimited, there wouldn’t be any. But there are only so many face masks manufactured every year, and a lot of them are actually made in China. As Maryn McKenna writes here, China is choosing not to export as many of their masks and other personal protective equipment, because they need them at home.
At a press briefing today, the World Health Organisation’s director-general noted that demand is up 100-fold for masks and related supplies, and prices are now up to 20 times higher than usual. Some of that is to be expected in an epidemic situation, but then he adds: “This situation has been exacerbated by widespread inappropriate use of [personal protective equipment such as masks] outside patient care.”
"This situation has been exacerbated by widespread, inappropriate use of PPE outside patient care. As a result, there are now depleted stockpiles & backlogs of 4-6 months. Global stocks of masks & respirators are now insufficient to meet the needs of WHO & our partners"-@DrTedros
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) February 7, 2020
The WHO is working to get supplies to the places that need them most, but stockpiles are already low. This is a real issue that has the power to affect the ability of clinicians to properly care for patients and prevent the virus’s spread in hospitals.
What you can do
Don’t buy masks out of fear—Either fear of coronavirus, or fear that stockpiles will soon be gone. Buying masks you don’t need is just making life harder for doctors, and for people with medical needs like your neighbour with asthma and a dust allergy who wears a respirator when she cleans her house.
If you do have a medical reason for wearing masks, do what you need to do to stay safe. If you have trouble finding or affording them, ask your doctor for advice.
If you’re concerned about catching coronavirus, it may help you to read up on the facts. There are only 15 cases of the virus in Australia right now, according to the Department Of Health; you’re far more likely to contract a cold or the flu than coronavirus. Things can change, but let’s give the health care workers who are responding to the disease a chance to handle it appropriately.
If a mask just helps you to feel better, cloth masks may be a good alternative. You can even find simple sewing patterns for them if you’d like to make your own. They’re not quite as effective as respirators or disposable surgical masks, but they can provide some protection. You’ll need to wash them daily, but that means two or three masks will do the job, and you won’t need to keep buying disposable ones.