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"Stop buying masks," officials urge amid national shortage

Face masks don't protect the public from coronavirus, health officials say.

RED LION, Pa. — Looking for a safety mask? At Rick’s Home Center, you’ll find an empty shelf. Like thousands of stores across the country, the business sold out as people are stockpiling medical supplies to avoid coronavirus.

“We have big boxes of them and they’d buy several boxes at one time,” said Lee Hunter, the store’s electrical department manager.

The fear of coronavirus is spreading around the world as fast as the virus itself. Mask suppliers in Asia, Europe and U.S. have all received large orders for masks. Rick’s Home Center’s usual suppliers have no inventory left, Hunter said, and online suppliers are backordered.

“We can’t get them right now,” Hunter said.

Yet customers keep coming in, like Ella Bernstein, a Dallastown High School senior who said TikTok videos initially made coronavirus sound funny.

“I thought it was a joke at first but now it’s so real,” Bernstein said. She went to buy a face mask March 1 but found the store sold out.

Health officials say this rush to buy masks is a problem, because the masks do not effectively protect the public from catching coronavirus.

The U.S. Surgeon General begged people on Twitter to stop buying masks.

Surgical and dust masks can’t filter out virus particles, and even the N95 respirator, effective against 95 percent of small particles, doesn’t work properly without training on how to seal the mask to the face.

Only health workers and people who are already sick should wear face masks, the CDC advised. Furthermore, those people are being put at risk in the current mask shortage.

Some companies that make masks, like 3M, are ramping up production. However, masks made in foreign countries and being sold in local markets and not getting imported to the U.S.

Health officials are urging people to forgo these supplies in order to prioritize their use for healthcare workers.

Instead, the CDC said, the best prevention is healthy hygiene.

“Lots of hand sanitizer and washing my hands as best I can,” Bernstein said. “I’m not really sure what else to do.”

The CDC also recommends not touching your face and avoiding close contact with sick people.

If you do catch coronavirus, the CDC says to stay home. The only time you’ll need to wear a mask is when you do leave your house to get medical care.