A masked man walks next to a sign saying “All type of mask sold out” at a pharmacy in Siam square, Bangkok. Like many places, Bangkok is facing shortage of protective surgical masks due to the outbreak of a new coronavirus in Wuhan, China.

Patipat Janthong | SOPA Images | LightRocket via Getty Images

Epidemiologists and infectious diseases experts have cautioned against panic as the number of cases linked to the new coronavirus in China continues to rise. Some warn that the widespread scramble for face masks is unwarranted.

In fact, they cautioned that hoarding behavior by those who do not exhibit respiratory symptoms have sparked concerns in medical circles that there could be a possible shortage of personal protective equipment in the coming weeks.

“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,” said Annelies Wilder-Smith, a professor of emerging infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“While we should take the outbreak seriously, we mustn’t panic and behave in a manner that is disproportionate to the threat we are confronted with,” said Wilder-Smith, who was a front-line clinician at Singapore’s Tan Tock Seng Hospital during the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2003.

In the United States and Canada — halfway around the world from the novel coronavirus’ epicenter in central China — major retailers and medical supply stores have been reporting medical mask shortages since the start of this week. It comes even as the number of confirmed cases in both countries remain relatively low — six in the U.S. and three in Canada.

In Singapore, where the number of cases rose to 13 in the past week, the shortage of face masks prompted hundreds of online sellers to jack up prices — some by up to 20 times. This week, the government cracked down on retailers trying to profit from the shortage, as the country’s leaders urged sellers not to take advantage of the situation and raise prices unreasonably.

Since the first cases were reported in December in Wuhan, a major transport hub and the capital city of China’s Hubei province, about 9,800 cases have been confirmed across the world. As of Friday, China reported that 213 people have died from the virus. There have been no reported deaths outside China.

Scramble for masks

The World Health Organization on Thursday declared the outbreak a global health emergency.

As countries around the world guard against the viral outbreak, the scramble for face masks as a form of psychological aid is “completely understandable,” said William Schaffner, an infectious diseases expert at the Vanderbilt University’s Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

“For many of us, influenza is a familiar fiend. In contrast, this coronavirus is new and somewhat mysterious,” he said. “Even experts say they don’t know much about it. People want to find some way to bring some control to the situation, thus the scramble for face masks.”

Preliminary information suggests that the new coronavirus can lead to pneumonia and even death, especially among the elderly and those with preexisting health problems. However, the various ways of transmission have yet to be definitively determined. Many characteristics of the virus and its impact also remain unclear.

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.

Amesh Adalja

scholar at Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security

However, Schaffner warned that if masks and other medical equipment continue to be swept off the shelves at such pace, health workers who need them will be the ones most at risk. “My colleagues in infection control around the United States have voiced concerns that we may experience shortages of some sort of protective equipment like masks, gowns and gloves, maybe in a week or two,” he said.

Panic begets panic

Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, recalled a similar phenomenon during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, when the general public scrambled to purchase body suits, which led to supply constraints.

“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,” he said.

A lady seen in her mask as hundreds of people wait in a queue to buy surgical masks at a Bonjour Cosmetics store.

Keith Tsuji | SOPA Images | LightRocket via Getty Images

Moreover, there is scant data on whether the use of face masks in a community setting helps prevent infection by respiratory viruses, said Marybeth Sexton, an assistant professor of medicine at Emory University in Georgia. “It would likely be more beneficial to focus on the things that we know help — like frequent hand washing, avoiding touching your face, and not going out in public if you are sick,” she said.

Most of the data suggesting that wearing a mask can help prevent infections take place in institutionalized health care settings, where there are trained personnel and other infection control measures in place.

For those who are ill with respiratory symptoms, wearing a mask can prevent them from coughing or sneezing infectious particles into their surrounding environment, Sexton said, but little has been established about how standard face masks can prevent those who are well from being infected.

Schaffner added that it is “striking” that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. does not recommend the use of masks for preventive purposes.

“The virus is not spreading in the general community,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a briefing on Thursday. “We don’t routinely recommend the use of face masks by the public to prevent respiratory illness. And we certainly are not recommending that at this time for this new virus.”