CDC : 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.

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Traders work in front of a board displaying the chart of Germany's share index DAX at the stock exchange in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany, on February 28, 2020. - Stock markets plunged further Friday, February 28, 2020, with equities on course for the largest weekly drop since the global financial crisis more than a decade ago on fears that the coronavirus could devastate the world economy, while oil prices tanked as well. (Photo by Daniel ROLAND / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL ROLAND/AFP via Getty Images)
28 February 2020, Hessen, Frankfurt/Main: An exchange trader at the Frankfurt Stock Exchange looks at his monitors. The most important German leading index, the Dax, fell by more than 5 percent in the morning. Concerns about a corona epidemic have been weighing on financial markets worldwide for days. Photo: Boris Roessler/dpa (Photo by Boris Roessler/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Mask-clad commuters make their way to work during morning rush hour at the Shinagawa train station in Tokyo on February 28, 2020. - Tokyo's key Nikkei index plunged nearly three percent at the open on February 28 after US and European sell-offs with investors worried about the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP) (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images)
Mask-clad commuters make their way to work during morning rush hour at the Shinagawa train station in Tokyo on February 28, 2020. - Tokyo's key Nikkei index plunged nearly three percent at the open on February 28 after US and European sell-offs with investors worried about the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP) (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images)
Mask-clad commuters make their way to work during morning rush hour at the Shinagawa train station in Tokyo on February 28, 2020. - Tokyo's key Nikkei index plunged nearly three percent at the open on February 28 after US and European sell-offs with investors worried about the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP) (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images)
Mask-clad commuters make their way to work during morning rush hour at the Shinagawa train station in Tokyo on February 28, 2020. - Tokyo's key Nikkei index plunged nearly three percent at the open on February 28 after US and European sell-offs with investors worried about the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP) (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images)
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Traders work during the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on February 27, 2020 at Wall Street in New York City. - Wall Street stocks opened sharply lower, joining a sell-off in most global bourses on fears the coronavirus will grow into a significant international health crisis. About five minutes into trading, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 1.8 percent, or about 480 points. The blue-chip index has fallen the last five days. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP) (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)
Traders work during the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on February 27, 2020 at Wall Street in New York City. - Wall Street stocks opened sharply lower Thursday, joining a sell-off in most global bourses on fears the coronavirus will grow into a significant international health crisis. About five minutes into trading, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 1.8 percent, or about 480 points. The blue-chip index has fallen the last five days. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP) (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)
Traders work during the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on February 27, 2020 at Wall Street in New York City. - Wall Street stocks opened sharply lower, joining a sell-off in most global bourses on fears the coronavirus will grow into a significant international health crisis. About five minutes into trading, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 1.8 percent, or about 480 points. The blue-chip index has fallen the last five days. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP) (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)
Traders work during the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on February 27, 2020 at Wall Street in New York City. - Wall Street stocks opened sharply lower Thursday, joining a sell-off in most global bourses on fears the coronavirus will grow into a significant international health crisis. About five minutes into trading, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 1.8 percent, or about 480 points. The blue-chip index has fallen the last five days. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP) (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)
Traders work during the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on February 27, 2020 at Wall Street in New York City. - Wall Street stocks opened sharply lower Thursday, joining a sell-off in most global bourses on fears the coronavirus will grow into a significant international health crisis. About five minutes into trading, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 1.8 percent, or about 480 points. The blue-chip index has fallen the last five days. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP) (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)
Traders work during the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on February 27, 2020 at Wall Street in New York City. - Wall Street stocks opened sharply lower Thursday, joining a sell-off in most global bourses on fears the coronavirus will grow into a significant international health crisis. About five minutes into trading, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 1.8 percent, or about 480 points. The blue-chip index has fallen the last five days. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP) (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)
The TSE Arrows market centre is seen at the Tokyo Stock Exchange (TSE) in Tokyo on February 26, 2020. - Tokyo stocks opened lower on February 26 extending losses on Wall Street, as the coronavirus continued to spread and public officials warned of the increasing likelihood of a pandemic. (Photo by Kazuhiro NOGI / AFP) (Photo by KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images)
A pedestrian stands in front of an electronic quotation board displaying share prices of the Nikkei 225 Index in Tokyo on February 26, 2020. - Tokyo stocks opened lower on February 26 extending losses on Wall Street, as the coronavirus continued to spread and public officials warned of the increasing likelihood of a pandemic. (Photo by Kazuhiro NOGI / AFP) (Photo by KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images)
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NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 25: Traders work through the closing minutes of trading Tuesday on the New York Stock Exchange floor on February 25, 2020 in New York City. Fueled by deepening concerns of the Coronavirus becoming a global pandemic, the stock market plunged Tuesday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average losing almost 900 points. (Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)
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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)

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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