Well-Being Prevention & Cures

Coronavirus is causing a worldwide panic about face masks. Should you join in?

Editor’s note: Since this story was written, science has progressed around coronavirus, and health experts now recommend wearing masks to reduce the risk of spreading and catching the virus.

Face masks are suddenly the hottest commodity in the world. 

Celebrities including Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Hudson and Bella Hadid have posted surgical mask selfies on social media, and millions of travelers are wearing them in crowded airports.

Demand is so high and prices are soaring so much that governments and some retailers are cracking down on disease profiteering. A 10-pack of 3M N95 masks, which are more effective than paper surgical masks, was selling for upwards of $100 on Amazon, up from just $10 a month ago. Sellers set their own prices, but Amazon says it will suspend accounts of partners who are trying to profiteer and don’t adhere to the e-tailers ‘fair pricing’ rules. 

Shortages and global hoarding are putting many hospitals in danger of running out, as their supplies dwindle and manufacturers can’t meet demand. 

Ironically, China, the epicenter of the coronavirus COVID-19 epidemic, is the world’s largest producer of surgical masks. It has the capacity to churn out 20 million of them every day, but the demand in China alone is closer to 60 million a day. 

The irony is that surgical masks will do little, if anything, to protect you from coronavirus. They are designed to prevent the spread of germs and viruses by the wearer to people nearby, which is why surgeons are meticulous about wearing them in the operating theater while cutting into their patients.

N95 masks are better — they’re designed to filter air through respirators that block up to 95 percent of pathogens. But they must fit snugly and the filters have to be replaced frequently, so they are more suited for first responders than for everyday wear. 

Health experts say masking large segments of the world’s populations is neither possible nor necessary. The best defense against infection is to stay away from parts of the world where the virus has hit epidemic levels and people who have travelled to those areas. 

Otherwise, basic hygiene protects against infection by all sorts of pathogens, including the flu and common colds.

Wash your hands — slowly and frequently, with lots of soap and running water. Then, avoid touching your mouth, eyes or nose. Experts say this is far more effective than wearing masks and much easier to do.