With more cases of coronavirus appearing worldwide, people are taking precautions, including wearing surgical-style masks.
The high demand for masks has caused stores in several major cities to sell out, and online retailers like Amazon are out of stock online.
According to the BBC, pharmacies in Seattle first began selling out of masks after the first case of the disease was confirmed in the U.S. on Jan. 21. Not long after, shops in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. started running out of masks as well.
Dr. Angela Hewlett, the medical director of the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit, says it’s not necessary for the average American to wear a mask for daily activities if he or she is not sick.
The reason people wear masks is so “you can prevent, when you cough or sneeze, the spread of particles to other people,” she tells PEOPLE.
“Wearing a mask when you’re not sick has not been proven to help protect you with this kind of illness. It’s not something that I would do at this point unless you’re in an unusual situation where you’re around someone that you know is sick, but I wouldn’t recommend it,” she says.
If you are sick, for example with a cold or the flu, Hewlett urges you to “seek medical care and stay home from work or school; you don’t want to spread it to other people.”
“Currently, in the United States, the risk of catching the coronavirus remains low for the average American,” she says. “All of the cases that we’ve detected in the United States have been in travelers from Wuhan. That being said, I think people should monitor this. I think it’s important when there’s an outbreak anywhere in the world to monitor that situation closely, using reliable sources like the CDC website or the World Health Organization.”
“Keeping everything in perspective is important, because we’re also right in the middle of an active flu season and it’s always important for people to remember to practice infection control methods like getting their flu shot, washing their hands, covering their cough, staying home from work or school if they’re sick … It does appear to be transmitted in a similar way to influenza, so those methods can also help for coronavirus,” she says.
It’s unclear if television personality Busy Philipps was concerned about the coronavirus, the flu or just getting a cold when she shared on social media Tuesday that she “lost her flying face mask” and “went to three different pharmacies last night that were all sold out.”
“I guess this is the best I can do for now,” she wrote with crossed-finger emojis.
Coronavirus, or 2019-nCoV, is a blanket term for several respiratory illnesses, ranging from the common cold to more severe viruses such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Symptoms typically include fever, cough, trouble breathing, headache and sore throat — similar to the flu. For people who have severe cases, it can turn into pneumonia, SARS, kidney failure and death, according to the World Health Organization.