Story at a glance

  • The new coronavirus from Wuhan is in 25 countries, including China.
  • People are buying up face masks.
  • Hoarding and reselling face masks for a profit could reduce the supply for health care workers who need them.

As of Feb. 6, the novel Wuhan coronavirus, currently being called 2019-nCoV, has spread to 24 countries other than China. There are reports of people buying out face masks or asking around to find out which stores have any masks in stock. In South Korea, officials have said that face mask hoarders could face fines or prison time. Personally overstocking could affect the supply of face masks available to health care workers and put them at risk of infection.

People in Asian countries closer to China have been queuing up to buy masks, sometimes for up to four hours, reports Business Insider. Stores in Japan sell out soon after they stock up. A source tells Changing America that some people are buying masks in Japan to send to people in China or to sell on Amazon’s Japanese site for a large markup. He also says that stores are also selling out of hand sanitizer.


An empty shelf in a store sold out of face masks. Photo credit: Nathaniel Guy.

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A sign apologizing for no masks. Photo credit: Nathaniel Guy.

Face masks are also selling out nationwide in the U.S. People can be seen wearing masks in Chinatown and Flushing, two majority Chinese neighborhoods in New York. Experts emphasize that wearing masks may not protect against infections.

What do masks do?

There are a variety of masks available. The most basic is a rectangular cloth with loops on the ends that fit around the ears. There are surgical masks, which protect against bacteria. And N95 masks filter out 95 percent of particles in the air that are 0.3 microns in size or larger.

Masks help protect the wearer from air or fluids containing pathogens. They are most useful if the person who is sick wears them. “If someone has a respiratory infection, masks are helpful at stopping spread,” says Isaac Bogoch of the University of Toronto to Vox. But a flimsy mask will not significantly reduce risk of infection, he adds.

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The most effective way to wear a mask is to use one that creates a seal around your nose and mouth so that pathogens can’t get through the sides. If you touch your face a lot, this also may prevent pathogens from your hands from getting into your body.

Do you need a mask?

Drugstores like Walgreens and Duane Reade have seen an increase in demand for face masks, according to Vox. Some people may be sending the masks to friends and relatives overseas in Asia, but as several experts have said, at this point in the U.S. there’s no need for widespread use of face masks. “I would not change any behavior if you’re outside the epidemic area,” says Bogoch to Vox.

Face masks can be effective in certain situations where exposure is highly likely, but the most effective way to protect yourself against infection in non-epidemic areas is to wash your hands. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not mention wearing face masks in their recommendations regarding 2019-nCoV.

There also isn’t any recent evidence that suggests that face masks can help prevent the spread of coronavirus because experts aren’t certain whether the virus is transmitting through physical contact or the air.

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People in areas where there are more coronavirus cases may want to wear masks, in case people who are asymptomatic can spread the virus. But for people in the U.S. and in other countries that are less affected, it’s unlikely that the virus is spreading in those populations. Currently, there isn’t a need for people in the U.S. to wear face masks for coronavirus. If people are sick with the flu, they may choose to wear a mask to prevent spreading that illness.

Mask hoarding and reselling

For people who are in the affected areas of China and other Asian countries, a face mask may be a necessary piece of protective equipment, especially if they are working in hospitals and on the frontlines of the epidemic. A box of face masks could sell for as much as about $125 on Amazon’s Japan site, or $100 for a single mask according to a source who spoke to Vox. These prices are exorbitant for something that normally costs a few dollars.


Screenshot of box of face masks selling for about $58. Photo credit: author.

For people in the U.S., there isn’t an urgent need to wear masks, though people may want to buy them less expensively here and ship them to Asia. But if people are buying them just because they are afraid, experts are concerned. “Panic purchases of face masks in low-risk countries like the U.S. is not warranted. People who are well should refrain from hoarding masks ‘just in case’ they need it, as this may lead to a lack of masks in settings that really need it,” says Annelies Wilder-Smith of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to CNBC.

Health care workers need them because they are at the most risk when treating people who are infected. They could spread the virus if they don’t have proper protective clothing and equipment. And if they feel they are at risk because of lack of protective equipment, they may not be willing to work in risky settings. For example, in one survey, 48 percent of health care workers were least willing to report to duty during a SARS outbreak and 61 percent for a smallpox epidemic.

But as most people in the U.S. are spectators to the epidemic, it may feel like the right thing to do to be prepared. “People are panicking and buying a mask is a way of taking charge and doing something. But the situation could spiral, and stores running out of masks may make others panic even more,” says Amesh Adalja of Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security to CNBC.

Makers of face mask are upping production, but with about a dozen confirmed cases in the U.S. we do not have to go into full panic mode. The situation in China is very different, with more than 24,000 confirmed cases. There are reports of queues and unrest regarding access to face masks, but hopefully, governments and officials will take the necessary steps to prevent mobbing and fighting over supplies, which would make this situation more like the movie “Contagion” than is necessary.

For up-to-date information, check the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

You can follow Chia-Yi Hou on Twitter.

Published on Feb 06, 2020