CDC warns: Save respirator masks for health care workers

WASHINGTON — Testifying before Congress on Tuesday, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield said there is a simple step Americans can take to help in the fight against the coronavirus: Stop buying high-tech N95 respirator masks — and leave them for health care workers who really need them.

“There’s no role for these masks in the community,” he said, speaking of the respirator masks (which are more sophisticated than regular surgical masks) that some people have chosen to wear in public settings. Though respirators could help in settings where close contact with infected individuals is inevitable, washing one’s hands is much more likely to fend off the disease, which has sickened 83,105 people around the world and killed 2,858.

Having originated in China, the virus has radiated both east and west. Cases have been found in Italy, Iran and about 10 other countries. A person in Northern California was found to have the coronavirus on Wednesday night, the nation’s first case of “community transmission,” meaning the patient didn’t appear to contract the virus from foreign travel or a known infected individual. California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on Thursday that some 8,400 people in the state were being monitored for signs of the disease.

As the virus has spread, creeping steadily toward pandemic levels, the face mask has become a symbol of prophylaxis against an invisible, fast-moving foe.

That’s precisely the problem. Ordinary citizens have been scrambling to purchase N95 respirators, which are more effective than ordinary surgical masks in preventing inhalation of harmful particles. Those respirators have spiked in price, leading Amazon to investigate improper inflationary practices by sellers.

An empty box of N95 respirator masks in a store in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Feb. 26, 2020. (Rahel Patrasso/Reuters)
An empty box of N95 respirator masks is seen inside a store in São Paulo, Brazil, on Wednesday. (Rahel Patrasso/Reuters)

More importantly, the run on respirators has created a shortage that has left public health officials scrambling, concerned that their first-line responders — who are far more likely to benefit from a respirator than an ordinary citizen — will lack for a basic defense against the coronavirus.

That is why Redfield and others have taken to discouraging Americans from buying the N95 respirators, lest they exacerbate an already troubling situation. Ordinary surgical masks are not considered very effective protection, although they have a use in preventing those who may be already infected from spreading the virus.

In testimony earlier this week, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar revealed that the federal government needs 300 million N95 respirators for its first responders and medical professionals, who could expect to come into close contact with the virus.

Redfield made a similar point the following day in stark terms. “These masks need to be prioritized for healthcare professionals,” he said, adding that this includes the people who’ve been infected and their immediate family members. He said it was imperative for “people to realize that that’s what these masks need to be reserved for.”

The government currently has only 30 million respirators, or one-tenth of the required amount. Its $2.5 billion congressional funding request for the coronavirus response intends to address that shortfall, among other precautionary and preventative measures.

Redfield’s warning came in response to questioning from Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., who asked Redfield to address concerns she had heard from her own constituents, including whether it was necessary to stockpile prescription medicines or foodstuffs.

Redfield said that neither measure was necessary “at this time.”

A short time later, Houlahan asked Redfield if he had anything to add.

“I do see people feeling the need to go buy masks. And I would ask them — and some people scoff at me when I say this — we need to make sure those N95 masks are available for the doctors and nurses that are gonna be taking care of individuals that have this illness.

“And it really does displease me to find people going out. ... These masks need to be prioritized for health care professionals,” Redfield continued.

The issue of the N95 masks was later brought up by Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., who described a $500 shipping-and-handling fee for respirators on online retailer Amazon. It was an “extraordinary charge,” though Sherman joked that “Mr. Bezos’s need for food and the necessities of life” were understandable, a reference to Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder, who is the wealthiest individual in the world. (Amazon sellers set the prices, and the Seattle-based company has said in recent days that it is taking measures against vendors involved in price gouging.)

Sherman then asked Redfield: “Who should wear the masks in the United States?”

Redfield returned to his earlier answer. “We would not recommend the American public go out and get these masks,” he said.


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