Quit Buying Coronavirus Masks You Don't Need
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 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 Organization'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]."
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 neighbor with asthma and a dust allergy who wears a respirator when she cleans her house.
If you're concerned about catching coronavirus, it may help you to read up on the facts. There are only 12 cases of the virus in the US right now, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker; you're far more likely to contract the flu than coronavirus.