‘Seriously people’: Public urged to stop ‘panic buying’ face masks

Medical experts have pleaded with the public to stop buying face masks.

Medical experts have pleaded with the public to stop buying face masks. Photo: Getty

Medical experts have pleaded with the public to stop ‘panic buying’ and hoarding face masks in response to the coronavirus, as shortages will jeopardise the safety of frontline health workers.

On Saturday, the United States surgeon general urged Americans to stop buying face masks.

“Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS!” Dr Jerome Adams wrote in a tweet.

“They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if health care providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”

Face masks have not been recommended for the general public as the protection they offer is limited and they are frequently worn incorrectly, virologist Ian Mackay, an associate professor at the University of Queensland’s school of medicine, explained to The New Daily.

There is no scientific evidence that they protect the general public from infection,’’ Dr Mackay said.

Face masks can be effective for “a professional to use in the right context”, but for members of the general public they are “more likely to be used wrongly and increase the risk by giving a false sense of security”, he said.

Instead, people should start implementing more stringent hygiene practices.

COVID-19 is mainly spread person-to-person via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It is also spread by people touching contaminated surfaces, where the virus can live for up to 48 hours, and then infecting themselves by touching their eyes, nose, or mouth.

Recommendations include regular hand-washing, using hand sanitiser, coughing or sneezing into the corner of the elbow, not touching the face, mouth, nose or eyes with the hands, avoiding contact with sick people, and staying home if ill.

How to prepare without panic buying

People can prepare themselves for the spread of the coronavirus by ensuring their home is stocked with enough essential food, medications, and household items for a two-week isolation period, Dr Mackay said.

“We’re doing this in my household at the moment, with two boys and my wife and myself,” Dr Mackay said.

“We’re doing a little bit [of extra shopping] each week. That extra goes into a box that we don’t touch and we just keep –  it’s about two weeks’ supply of important things like dried food, canned vegetables, canned fruit, tissues, cleaning materials.

Essentially we’re doing a two-week period, just in case there are interruptions to supplies and shelves don’t get stocked for a while.’’

People with prescriptions should think about “asking their GP to get that extended for a bit longer” to cover a potential supply disruption, Dr Mackay said.

Utilities such as water and electricity are not expected to be affected, he said.

“It’s just thinking about what you can and getting it done, then that box can sit in the corner and you haven’t panic bought, you haven’t hoarded, but you’ve got enough for two weeks.”

Pharmacists sell out, online sellers hike prices

Pharmacies across Australia have been selling out of face masks and hand sanitiser, while some online sellers have hiked prices.

“People are going mad,” pharmacist Anja Faustein, owner of Treasury Pharmacy in Melbourne’s CBD told The New Daily.

“We have face masks at the moment, but we sell out straight away. It’s impossible to get them. We get them from wholesalers, but they’re impossible to get.”

Face masks at Treasury Pharmacy are limited to two per person. Photo: Cassandra Tassios

Some frustrated customers have been abusive towards staff, Ms Faustein said.

Sometimes we get abused because people who think we should give [face masks] out for free. But we have to pay for them too,’’ she said.

As demand for face masks has surged, some wholesalers have hiked their prices to take advantage of the panic.

Earlier this month, Pharmacy Guild of Australia national president George Tambassis condemned the price hikes by “non-pharmacy wholesalers” as “unconscionable”.

Online sellers on platforms such as eBay have also been looking to profit.

According to Ms Faustein, a box of 100 face masks would usually retail at $145, but on Monday one eBay seller was selling just 20 face masks for $103, while another was selling a box of 50 masks for $270 – more than five times the regular rate.

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

At Ramsay Pharmacy on Bourke Street, naturopath Emma Wright told The New Daily that face masks and hand sanitiser were “out of stock with the suppliers”.

“First there was the smoke from the bushfires, and people wanted the surgical masks if they couldn’t get the P2 masks,” Ms Wright said.

“We got in big boxes of surgical masks from the hospitals and people would buy the whole boxes.

Customers were allowed to “buy in bulk at the start”, but the store later limited bottles of hand sanitiser to one per person.

“People are really panicky. We get a lot of tourists around here who are really anxious,” Ms Wright said.

“It’s a psychological pandemic. The government should be reassuring people.”

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