Local stores selling out of respiratory masks as coronavirus fears spread


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Local stores are selling out of respiratory face masks as people worried about the spread of the novel coronavirus look to protect themselves.

H-E-B, CVS, Walgreens and hardware stores around Austin are all running low or are completely out of face masks and hand sanitizer.

An spokesperson confirmed to KXAN the company is seeing shortages: “Like many other retailers, H-E-B is experiencing out of stocks for face masks due to high demand and very limited product availability. We continue to monitor the situation and are working with suppliers to restock shelves as soon as possible.”

At Peoples Rx on South Lamar, their shelf has been empty of the medical masks for weeks, yet people still show up every day looking for them, said Matt Dorsey, a wellness practitioner at the pharmacy.

“People aren’t necessarily saying the word ‘coronavirus,'” he said, “but the implication is yeah, they want to be prepared.”

And they’ll likely remain out of stock for the foreseeable future as retailers worldwide try to restock their shelves at the same time. “We’re talking to our distributors,” Dorsey said, “but unfortunately they don’t have any particular ETA. So we’re working on getting them in as soon as possible.”

Empty racks at a local hardware store usually hold a variety of respirators to protect the wearer from inhaling hazardous particles. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

Do the masks work?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend the everyday use of respirators to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Dr. Parker Hudson, an infectious disease specialist and assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin, agrees.

Surgical masks, he said, are only meant to be worn for a short time until they become damp, at which point they stop working. A normal person’s breathing will render the thin mask worthless in a short period of time. Plus, he said, people aren’t going to contract the new coronavirus just walking down the street.

A woman wears a surgical mask on Congress Avenue in Austin on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

“It can give people a false sense of security, because it’s not the mask that’s protecting them, it’s hand-washing,” he said.

Just like during flu season, proper hygiene can prevent the spread of the virus. The only people who need to wear masks, Parker said, are those in close contact with people confirmed to have COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Anyone with symptoms is also encouraged to wear a mask to prevent the disease from spreading to vulnerable populations, like the elderly and people with underlying medical conditions.

“Children, surprisingly in this infection, do not seem to have symptoms and are not having severe manifestations of this infection,” Parker explained. “Otherwise-healthy young adults, the risk of dying is minuscule… like, less than 0.2 percent.”

No local transmission in Texas

Austin Public Health reiterated Friday that there are no local transmission cases of the virus in Texas, only a few people in quarantine in San Antonio who came to the U.S. from other places.

APH activated its department operations center three and a half weeks ago to start monitoring the global spread of coronavirus. A live map updates with the number of people infected all over the world, and monitors allow members to watch feeds of news conferences with health leaders across the country.

They receive flights manifests multiple times daily through a system of health agencies, then proactively contact passengers who’ve recently come back from China.

Chris Crookham motions to the live-updating map of where outbreaks are worst on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

“As time has gone by, fewer and fewer people are traveling back from China, so our lists have been getting smaller and smaller,” said Chris Crookham, APH’s public health emergency preparedness manager.

The agency monitors the passengers for 14 days, asking them to report their temperatures twice a day for signs of fever. If anyone comes back with symptoms, Crookham said, they’d need to send a test off to confirm with the new coronavirus was responsible.

“Everybody we’ve been in contact with, they’ve been symptom-free,” he said, “no fever or anything like that. So we’ve not had to do any testing, thankfully.”

The number of people APH is monitoring changes from day to day, but so far it’s been fewer than 50. Meanwhile, Crookham said, the number of flu cases in the U.S. is much more troubling. More than 1,600 people have died this year from the flu, he said, four of them adults in Travis County. “Flu is definitely the bigger threat at the moment.”

What can you do?

It’s important, experts say, to prepare but not panic. Aside from practicing good hygiene to prevent the spread of the virus, Parker said, there are a couple things you can do to be prepared.

First, stock up on any regular medications; ask your doctor for a 30- or 90-day supply so you have a good supply. Second, get a flu shot or pneumonia shot (if that’s appropriate for you). It won’t prevent COVID-19, but it will lower the number of other issues clinics and doctors are having to deal with so they can focus their efforts on the coronavirus if need be.

“There’s been no community spread, or person-to-person spread here in Texas,” Crookham said. “So, at the moment, the risk is still low, and we’re trying to keep it low as long as we can.”

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