The general public recently has increased its purchases of face masks due to fear of COVID-19 and the false perception that this would save them from contracting the Coronavirus. A lot has been said about face masks and who should be using them amid the spread of COVID-19.
The CDC, WHO, U.S. surgeon general, and HHS secretary have all categorically stated that the general public should not use face masks. The reality is this rush of purchases is generating a shortage for healthcare professionals who really need masks and is creating a greater chance for the virus to spread. If each one of the 18 million healthcare workers were to use 10 to 15 face masks over the next couple of months (which is not expected to be the case), it would amount to a requirement of approximately 180 million to 270 million masks for the healthcare industry. This is in addition to their regular use of surgical masks.
In contrast, if every American bought 10 masks, it would create a demand for approximately 3.5 billion masks, and the PPE industry cannot meet the artificial demand from its current inventories and manufacturing facilities. Aside from a potential deficit of masks, healthcare professionals, unlike the general public, are trained in the proper application of these masks and the proper disposal of used/contaminated masks. The fact is that improper disposal of contaminated masks poses a larger risk than not using any masks at all.
In its effort to prepare for what has now been declared a pandemic, the HHS indicated its intent to procure up to 500 million N95 respirators and face masks for its Strategic National Stockpile. The current stockpile is estimated to be in the region of 30 million respirators and face masks. This will help in meeting the possible increased requirements for masks and respirators in the coming months.
One must also keep in mind that a large portion of disposable masks are produced in China and other Asian countries. This will result in some disruption and stress on the supply chain for the rest of the world, but not in China, as it can divert products from its factories for domestic use. However, most local manufacturers are stepping up production in the US to meet the growing demand. The best way to avoid shortages is to stop the panic purchasing of these products by the general public.
The biggest support we can provide to our healthcare professionals is to not create an artificial shortage of critical products that are required to effectively control the spread of COVID-19 in our communities. Based on the production in different parts of the world, it will be a challenge for the PPE industry to meet the growing demand for face masks as the virus spreads. Everyone will have to bank on limited strategic stockpiles or produce them locally with some process modifications.