Buying face masks over coronavirus fears could put health care workers at risk

WHO discourages coronavirus fear-buying

The coronavirus outbreak has catapulted sales of surgical-style masks, hand sanitizers and other preventive items. But the World Health Organization says people snapping up medical supplies could be putting health care workers at risk.

Inside a production facility in Augusta, Georgia, for Medicom, a global supplier of infection control products, employees are working nearly around the clock to fill demand.

"We're really busy," Jessica Bryant, a Medicom floor worker, said. "We've been doing some overtime, we've been working on the weekend and try to make sure we get all of our customers what they need."

Medicom COO Guillaume Laverdure told CBS News correspondent Mola Lenghi that the company is "trying to help government agencies work together."

"We can't cope with the demand. The demand is multiplied by five, 10, it's just out of any proportion that we've seen in the past," he said.

In addition to its Georgia factory, Medicom has three facilities in China, one in Taiwan and one in France. Eighty percent of the masks the company produces in its China plants are typically exported around the world, but the country is currently not allowing any of them to be exported, fueling the global mask shortage, Laverdure said.   

The dwindling mask supply is worrisome to Dr. Connie Savor-Price, the chief medical officer and infectious disease researcher at Denver Health.

"We don't recommend them for the general public. We need to reserve these for the settings where people are most at risk, and this is in our health care settings," she said. "I am concerned about our hospital facilities and our ability to deliver continued care, not only for coronavirus but other routine illnesses."

A standard surgical mask is effective at resisting large airborne droplets or other fluids, but is not designed to filter viruses. Its loose fit also makes it easier for droplets to enter around the edges of the mask.

The N95 respirator — a tight, custom fitted mask that forces inhaled air toward the mask's body and not its edges — is capable of filtering out 95% of particulates, including small droplets, but not viral particles.

"In fact it could have the alternative, undesired effect of transmitting these infections more readily to the untrained wearer," Savor-Price said.

Public health officials have said the same.

"Surgical masks don't provide YOU respiratory protection against diseases like #Coronavirus. They protect others from YOUR cough," tweeted U.S. Surgeon General Vice Admiral Jerome Adams.   

"There's no role for these masks in the community," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert R. Redfield said.

New York City Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot also told everyday New Yorkers, "there is no need to use a mask."
 
But despite these pleas, panic buying of surgical masks seems to continue.

Laverdure said the demand is industry-wide.

"It's all over the industry, in all of the countries. We have a factory in France. We're facing the same challenge," he said.