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Coronavirus Fears Have U.S. Pharmacies Running Out of Face Masks

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TUESDAY, Feb. 11, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- As millions in China scramble to find and wear face masks they believe will protect them against the new coronavirus, many Americans are trying to do the same.

In a new survey conducted by the National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA), nearly two-thirds (63%) of U.S. pharmacists said they've had customers buy surgical masks as a precaution against coronavirus, and nearly all -- 96% -- said that demand has led to shortages as outlets wait to restock shelves.

Forty percent of pharmacists surveyed said they can't get enough respirator masks to meet customer demand, and there have also been runs on hand sanitizers, surface sanitizers and gloves.

But when it comes to masks, any panic over getting one may be misguided, health officials say.

Dr. Nancy Messonnier directs the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a recent news briefing, she stressed again that, "we don't routinely recommend the use of face masks by the public to prevent respiratory illness, and we are certainly not recommending them at this time for this novel virus."

"A surgical mask might provide some protection, but it's going to be very modest," agreed Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

Schaffner noted that this new coronavirus spreads the way flu does, but the CDC does not recommend face masks as a way to avoid flu, either.

"The reason is that CDC requires scientific evidence to show that any intervention they recommend is likely to have value. It turns out that evidence for using masks in the community is scanty at best," he said.

No definitive studies exist that prove masks prevent infections. Also, masks are designed for different purposes and only certain types will guard against infectious diseases, experts say.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, a spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, added that the risk to the United States right now from this coronavirus is still slight.

While China has already confirmed more than 40,000 cases and 908 deaths from the new coronavirus, only a dozen coronavirus cases have been reported in the United States, and those cases have been quarantined and contained.

So, "buying these masks could have unintended consequences, including shortages, demand spikes and price increases," Adalja said. "It's not really necessary to wear a mask to protect yourself. It's not something Americans need to do."

In a news release, NCPA president Brian Caswell said that if Americans really want to worry about a virus, the plain old flu is a better candidate.

"The flu kills tens of thousands of Americans every year. Only a handful of Americans have been diagnosed with coronavirus in this country and there are not yet any fatalities," he noted.

To guard against flu and any other infectious virus, "Americans should remember to wash their hands frequently, avoid crowds if possible, and disinfect the things they touch," he suggested.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the new coronavirus.

SOURCES: Amesh Adalja, M.D., spokesman, Infectious Diseases Society of America; Nancy Messonnier, M.D., director, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; National Community Pharmacists Association, news release, Feb. 6, 2020

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