Doctors slam face mask price hikes, call for better coronavirus protection for health workers

Workers dealing with coronavirus patients require hazmat suits, respirator masks and goggles for protection, Dr Miller says.

Workers dealing with coronavirus patients require hazmat suits, respirator masks and goggles for protection, Dr Miller says. Photo: Getty

Face mask prices have soared, with doctors urging the public to stop “panic buying” the unnecessary and overpriced items in response to the coronavirus.

Australian Medical Association (AMA) WA president Andrew Miller told The New Daily that surgical mask prices had risen by “around 700 per cent”.

People are buying surgical masks – which are pretty useless for the general public and not necessary – at highly inflated costs at the moment,’’ Dr Miller said.

“It seems suppliers have put up the cost of the remaining masks…Some are being sold at around $25 for a single mask when they should be less than $1.”

Doctors and pharmacists have blamed wholesalers for inflated surgical mask prices.

Dr Miller urged people to save their money as coronavirus is not present in the community, and surgical masks do not offer full protection to the wearer anyway.

“You’d need a [P2] mask and goggles as well,” he said.

“But it’s much more effective just to avoid people who are sick and who have fever.”

Consumer demand for both P2 and surgical masks has spiked in recent weeks, initially due to bushfire smoke causing air quality to reach hazardous levels in major cities.

Supply constraints were compounded by the coronavirus outbreak, with face masks and hand sanitiser selling out at many stores across the nation.

The bushfires and coronavirus have led to a run on face masks. Photo: Getty/eBay/TND

This is despite the fact Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy is “not recommending the general Australian public wear masks or take protection” as “there is no evidence of human-to-human transition in Australia”.

The World Health Organisation has instead advised people to wash hands frequently with an alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.

Price hikes ‘unconscionable’

Pharmacy Guild of Australia national president George Tambassis described the price hikes by “non-pharmacy wholesalers” as “unconscionable”.

Pharmacies across the nation have experienced “large numbers of consumers seeking face masks and hand sanitiser products due to the coronavirus outbreak”, which is “putting pressure on staff and on stock”, Mr Tambassis said in a statement to members on Friday.

Supplies of face masks and hand sanitisers have been erratic, and shortages have occurred in many areas,’’ Mr Tambassis said.

“We are also aware that this surge in demand has seen the wholesale price of face masks from some non-pharmacy wholesalers rise sharply, leading to very high retail prices.”

Mr Tambassis said pharmacists should “use their own judgment in responding to requests from members of the public who want to purchase them” while “making sure consumers are informed that the best advice we currently have from health authorities is that they do not need to be wearing masks”.

Obviously, many consumers will want to purchase face masks regardless of this advice, and they are entitled to make those purchases if they wish, but it is incumbent on us to ensure patients are fully informed.”

Doctors at odds with government

Surgical face masks do not prevent coronavirus infection. Photo: Getty

Dr Miller called on the government to provide better protection for health workers on the front line of the coronavirus, saying the surgical masks provided are far from adequate.

Last month, the government said it would distribute “one million masks to GPs and patients across the nation in an attempt to prevent the coronavirus from spreading”.

On Wednesday, federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said the government would be providing “an additional 300,000 surgical masks to the primary health networks for supporting doctors, health workers and also pharmacists”.

Mr Hunt specified these masks were not to be used “as a sale item for pharmacists but in case there is a potential patient who reports” to the pharmacy, as well as “anybody associated with them and for pharmacy staff”.

The government needs to be looking at options for how to manufacture the proper respiratory masks that we’re going to need,’’ Dr Miller said.

“Because if we do get an outbreak here, and all of the medical and nursing staff come down with this, then we’re not going to have the people we need to look after the number of people who are going to be sick.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health told The New Daily surgical masks had been “deployed on the basis of the latest advice to health care workers from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee”.

The committee advised that “a surgical face mask should be used while reviewing suspected novel coronavirus cases, along with existing personal protective equipment requirements”, the spokesperson said.

“A P2 respirator is only required if a potentially aerosol-generating procedure is required in a patient with severe symptoms.”

There are currently 12 million P2 masks in Australia’s medical stockpile, compared to nearly 7.2 million surgical masks.

The Department of Health has “begun to replenish the stockpile of P2 masks”, a spokesperson said on Wednesday.

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