Americans worried about coronavirus don't need to buy face masks, US surgeon general says

Americans worried about the coronavirus outbreak shouldn’t buy face masks to protect themselves against it because the masks are ineffective for those without symptoms -- and the purchases deplete the supplies available for medical professionals, the U.S. surgeon general said Saturday.

“Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS!” Dr. Jerome M. Adams wrote on Twitter, addressing fears over the spread of the virus in the U.S.

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

Adams was referring to the recent spike in sales of face masks, including N95 respirator masks, that has led to price gouging and potential shortages.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says masks should be worn only by medical professionals and those with the virus, adding the best way to stay healthy is to wash your hands and avoid touching your eyes and mouth.

“There are severe strains on protective equipment around the world,” Dr. Michael J. Ryan, executive director of the health emergency program at the World Health Organization, said during a briefing on Friday, according to The New York Times. “Our primary concern is to ensure that our front line health workers are protected and that they have the equipment they need to do their jobs.”

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“There are limits to how a mask can protect you from being infected,” he added. “The most important thing everyone can do is wash your hands, keep your hands away from your face and observe very precise hygiene.”

After some sellers on Amazon recently marked up face masks to nearly four times their regular price, the site warned sellers that price gouging could get them thrown off the website.

"Sellers set their own product prices in our store and we have policies to help ensure sellers are pricing products competitively. We actively monitor our store and remove offers that violate our policies," an Amazon spokesman said in a statement. By Wednesday, Amazon had already sold out of some brands, CBS News reported.

“There is no role for these masks in the community,” Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, told Congress on Thursday, according to The Times. “These masks need to be prioritized for health care professionals that as part of their job are taking care of individuals.”

Last week, Prestige Ameritech, the largest manufacturer of face masks in the U.S., said it can't keep up with the demand.

"It's a madhouse," executive vice president of the company, Mike Bowen, told CBS.  "We are going as fast as we can."

Vice President Mike Pence, who President Trump tapped this week to head the administration's coronavirus task force, said in a news conference Saturday, "We have more than 40 million masks available today. ... We’ve contracted now with [manufacturer] 3M to — 35 million more masks per month will be produced, and we’re also going to be working with other manufacturers.”

However, 3M communications manager Jennifer Ehrich said the company couldn't confirm Pence's statement, The Star Tribune of Minneapolis reported.

“Just to clarify, we are not yet under contract for the volume mentioned today," she said. "However, we are preparing to respond to the U.S. administration’s request for a proposal for respirators. 3M continues to maximize production at its manufacturing facilities in the U.S. and around the world for all types of N95 respirators.”

In Italy, which has seen the largest outbreak of the virus in Europe, authorities were investigating reports of price gouging.

“We have decided to open an investigation after media reports of the insane prices fetched up by these products (masks and gels) on online sales websites in the last two days,” Milan deputy chief prosecutor Tiziana Siciliano told Reuters.

Many pharmacies in the country say they have run out of masks and hand sanitizer, leaving consumers with online purchases as their only recourse.

A man in Washington state became the first patient to die of the virus in the U.S. Saturday, as the total number of infected Americans climbed to nearly 70, including four patients who likely contracted it within the community.

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