Face Masks Are Selling Out in U.S. Over China Coronavirus Fears, but Experts Say They Won't Protect Against Infection

As people try to protect themselves from a mysterious new virus that has spread from China, face masks have reportedly sold out in a number of areas in the U.S.—despite experts questioning how much protection they offer.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, five cases of what is known as 2019-nCoV have been confirmed in people in Washington, Illinois, California, and Arizona, with a further 73 individuals awaiting their results.

The patients had recently returned to the U.S. from the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where an outbreak of the illness started in December 2019, among people who worked at a wholesale seafood market. Since the start of the outbreak, the bug has spread to over a dozen countries.

Surgical face masks started selling out in pharmacies in Seattle hours after the first case of the new form of coronavirus in the U.S. was identified there last Tuesday, according to BBC News. The news website also reported the face covers have been unavailable in Washington since the weekend, with people making "runs on pharmacies" in New York, and stockpiling the items in Los Angeles.

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The Chicago Tribune reported the masks had sold out in one store in the city last week on the eve of the Lunar New Year, after a case was confirmed there. Chinatown in New York City has been hit with similar problems, where over a dozen drug stories had run out on Friday, according to Al Jazeera.

"Everybody's been coming in the morning and saying, do you have face masks? Do you have face masks?" Teresa Zhan, a pharmacist in Chinatown, Manhattan told Al Jazeera. She said people usually buy one or two masks during the regular flu season, but "now, they're like, give me the whole box."

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Tina Liu, a Chinese student at the University of Washington near Seattle told BBC News she hasn't seen many people wearing the masks in the city, but is donning one because she believes "it's better to be safe than sorry."

On Twitter, users shared photos of shelves where masks are usually stocked appearing empty, and providing updates on new stock. The images have not been verified by Newsweek.

On Sunday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement: "It is likely there will be more cases reported in the U.S. in the coming days and weeks, likely including person-to-person spread."

However, in an apparent attempt to allay fears, the body said: "We understand that some people are worried about this virus and how it may impact Americans," adding "while this is a serious public health threat, CDC continues to believe the immediate risk to the U.S. general public is low at this time."

The general public don't need to take any additional precautions to protect themselves "beyond the simple daily precautions that everyone should always take," the CDC said. The statement included no mention of face masks. In a separate statement, it advised healthcare professionals to provide 2019-nCoV patients, caregivers and those thought to have had close contact with infected people, as well as those suspected to have it, with surgical masks as soon as they are identified.

Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the U.K.'s University of Edinburgh told New Scientist surgical masks "might help, but it's not clear they give you total protection."

Eric Toner, of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, told Business Insider there's "little harm" in wearing face masks, but said: "it's not likely to be very effective in preventing it."

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A Chinese visitor wears a protective mask as she tour the grounds of the Temple of Heaven, which remained open during the Chinese New Year and Spring Festival holiday on January 27, 2020 in Beijing, China. Kevin Frayer/Getty
Face Masks Are Selling Out in U.S. Over China Coronavirus Fears, but Experts Say They Won't Protect Against Infection | Health