Face Mask Shortages Amid Coronavirus Outbreak Mean Dentists in U.K. May Need to Stop Working

Dentists in the U.K. may have to stop working due to a shortage of face masks amid the outbreak of the deadly new coronavirus COVID-19, according to a body representing the profession. The warning comes after the World Health Organization (WHO) highlighted global supply problems with items used by healthcare workers, known as personal protective equipment (PPE).

The British Dental Association (BDA) said in a statement that the issue caused by the outbreak of the newly named COVID-19, which has killed over 1,380 people so far, "now poses an imminent risk" of disrupting dental services in the U.K.

A spokesperson for the BDA told Newsweek: "Based on contact with members we believe some larger clinics will have to start reducing clinical time as soon as mid-late next week. We urgently need to see an increase in supply. We are working with the government and industry to this end."

The organization explained in a statement that China, where the virus first emerged late last year, is the world's leading maker of sanitary masks, and a number of suppliers have tripled their prices since January, when news began to spread of the outbreak that started in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, Hubei province.

All dental professionals in England are required to wear protection including face masks while tending to patients, with similar rules in Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland either disposable masks or reusable visors can be used.

Rationing of masks by suppliers means some practices can't order more than two boxes, or 100 masks, per day, regardless of their size. The average practice will see around 28 patients a day, and need five boxes per week, the BDA estimated. However, those with fewer patients might only need around 2.5 boxes per week.

Mick Armstrong, chair of the BDA, said in a statement: "In recent weeks dentists have been hit by panic buying, clumsy rationing and naked profiteering. Sadly a 'one size fits all' approach from suppliers is leaving many larger practices with few options.

"Our abiding interest is the safety of our patients, who face imminent disruption to their care. Unless we see a rapid increase in supply dentists without face masks will have little choice but to down drills."

The problem has also hit other parts of the world. A message by the Australian Dental Association to the BDA seen by the Australian Associated Press news agency stated: "Here in Australia, we are potentially going to be facing a situation of mask shortages as our suppliers all rely heavily on Chinese manufacturers."

The BDA spokesperson told Newsweek: "This is a global problem. Many countries are being hit by panic buying from the general public, or are reliant on Chinese supplies, that are no longer being exported."

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care told BBC News: "We have central stockpiles of a range of medical products, including face masks, to mitigate supply problems and help ensure the uninterrupted supply to the NHS [National Health Service].

"We have well-established procedures to deal with supply problems, regardless of the cause, and work closely with industry, the NHS and others in the supply chain to help prevent shortages and to ensure that the risks to patients are minimized."

According to the New York Times, stocks of protective personal equipment, including masks, gowns and safety goggles, are low in Hubei, at the epicenter of the outbreak. Some doctors and nurses said they eat one meal a day to avoid using the restroom, which would mean throwing out safety gowns.

Last Friday, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, told a media briefing that coronavirus had put pressure on the supply of personal protective equipment. Demand for such items was 100 times higher than usual, and prices up 20 times higher. Stockpiles had become depleted, with a backlog of between four to six months. He blamed the widespread inappropriate use of equipment.

Ghebreyesus said the WHO estimates emergency responders on the frontline around the world need approximately 7 to 10 percent of market capacity, with those in China most in need.

"The network is focusing initially on surgical masks because of the extreme demand and market pressures," he said.

At the time, Ghebreyesus thanked suppliers for prioritizing medical professionals, and said health workers are the first priority, followed by those who are sick or caring for someone who is sick.

"WHO discourages stockpiling of PPE in countries and areas where transmission is low." he said, adding: "We all have a part to play in keeping each other safe."

Dr. Michael Ryan, the WHO's executive director for emergencies, said the pressure on stocks was creating "opportunities for hoarding, opportunities for gazumping, The Guardian reported.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the members of the general public do not need to use face masks against coronavirus—as 2019-nCoV hasn't spread in the general community. The WHO also stresses health people only need to wear a mask if they are talking to a person with COVID-19.

Ryan said: "Masks don't necessarily protect you, but they do–if you have the disease–stop you from giving it to anybody else."

Referring to the more comprehensive and protective masks: "If you see the normal civilian market flooded with N95 type masks and you see doctors and nurses who don't have those, there is a problem."

This article has been updated with comment from a spokesperson for the BDA.

dentist, getty, stock,
A stock image show a dentist wearing a protective mask.

Editor's pick

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts