Coronavirus fears spark global panic-buying of face masks

Fear of the spreading coronavirus has led to a global run on sales of face masks despite evidence that most people who aren’t sick don’t need to wear them.

Many businesses are sold out, while others are limiting how many a customer can buy. 

Amazon is policing its site, trying to make sure sellers don’t gouge panicked buyers.

In South Korea, hundreds lined up to buy masks from a discount store and rumors that toilet paper and napkins can be used as masks have emptied store shelves in Asia of paper goods over the past few weeks.

Fear of the spreading coronavirus has led to a global run on sales of face masks despite evidence that most people who aren’t sick don’t need to wear them. Pictured: Airport staff check the temperatures of passengers returning from Milan as part of their coronavirus screening procedure at the Debrecen airport, Hungary

People trying to protect themselves from the outbreak and medical centers alike are facing shortages.

The shortages are being attributed not just to high demand, but to disruptions in supply.

An outsize share of the world’s surgical masks are made in China – 50%, by its own estimate.

But even factories there that have ramped up production say they are hard pressed to meet local demand. The government has taken over manufacturers, and exports have plunged.

Authorities of major Chinese cities have demanded their citizens wear face masks in public places as mandatory protection to stop the virus from spreading. The picture shows a man wearing a protective face mask taking photos in Jingshan Park, Beijing, on February 25

Authorities of major Chinese cities have demanded their citizens wear face masks in public places as mandatory protection to stop the virus from spreading. The picture shows a man wearing a protective face mask taking photos in Jingshan Park, Beijing, on February 25

David Peng, manager of Ningbo Buy Best International Trading Co. in Ningbo, south of Shanghai said: ‘Before the outbreak of the epidemic, we used to export 600,000 to 700,000 surgical masks a month, but now the amount is zero.’

The company’s dozen or so suppliers in Hubei, near the center of the outbreak, have been ordered to prioritize government orders.

Apart from shortages of workers, manufacturers say they are struggling to get enough raw materials to make the masks. 

Tony Zhou, sales manager for Suzhou Sanical Protective Products Manufacturing Co., said his company is asking overseas customers if masks can be delivered a few months later.

In the U.S., Walgreens, Home Depot, Lowe’s and True Value Hardware are reporting a sharp uptick in sales of masks over the past several weeks and say they are scrambling to get more from suppliers.

Globally, fear of the spreading coronavirus has led to a run on sales of face masks despite medical experts' advice that most people who aren't sick don't need to wear them. The picture shows people in Hong Kong queuing outside a cosmetic store for buying masks on February 3

Globally, fear of the spreading coronavirus has led to a run on sales of face masks despite medical experts’ advice that most people who aren’t sick don’t need to wear them. The picture shows people in Hong Kong queuing outside a cosmetic store for buying masks on February 3

Home Depot, the nation’s largest home improvement chain, has limited sales of N95 respirators to 10 per person. They have a close facial fit and more filtration material than general surgical masks, enabling them to keep out at least 95% of particles.

Marc Jaconksi, owner of Stanley’s True Value Hardware and Rental store in Philadelphia, said he saw a surge in demand for masks, particularly the N95, two weeks ago. 

But since Tuesday, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that the virus will almost certainly spread in the U.S., sales went through the roof.

‘We would be crazy busy with snow, but we are not getting snow,’ he said. ‘We’re crazy busy with respirators.’

Jaconski said his store has sold 1,000 masks of all kinds in the past two weeks. He has ordered more N95s, but customers are so desperate they are picking up lightweight dust masks or buying heavy-duty respirators used for asbestos cleanup that sell for up to $60.

At least 2,858 people have died and some 83,700 have contracted the coronavirus globally

At least 2,858 people have died and some 83,700 have contracted the coronavirus globally

‘It’s usually the oldest folks who get a little crazed,’ he said. ‘This time, it is everybody.’

The virus has infected more than 82,000 people worldwide and killed more than 2,800, according to international health authorities.

Still, the CDC doesn’t recommend that people wear masks to protect themselves from the virus. The CDC says people infected – or those showing symptoms such as fever and shortness of breath – should wear masks to avoid spreading it to others. Health care workers also need masks, the agency says.

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