Coronavirus fears Leads to Shortage of Face Masks

By HSE East Africa | Monday Feb 17, 2020

Dentists in the U.K. have indicated that they may have to stop working due to a shortage of face masks amid the outbreak of the deadly new coronavirus COVID-19. The British Dental Association (BDA) said in a statement that the issue caused by the outbreak which has killed over 1,380 people so far, "now poses an imminent risk" of disrupting dental services in the U.K.

A spokesperson for the BDA told Newsweek: "Based on contact with members we believe some larger clinics will have to start reducing clinical time as soon as mid-late next week. We urgently need to see an increase in supply. We are working with the government and industry to this end."

The warning comes after the World Health Organization (WHO) highlighted global supply problems with items used by healthcare workers, known as personal protective equipment (PPE).

"We're sending testing kits, mask, gloves, respirators and gowns to countries in every region. However the world is facing a chronic shortage of personal protective equipment," World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a briefing in Geneva on Friday.

China, where the virus first emerged late last year, is the world's leading maker of sanitary masks, and a number of suppliers have tripled their prices since January, when news began to spread of the outbreak that started in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, Hubei province. As of Monday morning, the number of confirmed cases globally stood at 71,000, with more than 70,000 of those in mainland China. There have been 1,776 deaths, all but five in China.

Across China, the spread of the virus has prompted quarantines, airline cancellations, stores closures and the temporary shut down of factories and other businesses.

The worldwide mask shortage prompted electronics giant Foxconn, the maker of the Apple iPhone, to set up a production line of facial masks at its facility near Shenzhen in southeastern China. The company said on Friday it is applying for product certification and it expects capacity to reach 2 million facial masks per day by the end of February.

"These masks will not only satisfy the maximum needs of company employees for preventing the coronavirus, but could also be used for external support to help with the current coronavirus control," the Taiwanese company said in a statement.

For weeks, it's been impossible to buy any masks on China's e-commerce giants. Even N95 respirators, which are said to be more effective than surgical masks in stopping transmission of the virus, are also out of stock on all major online platforms in China.

In Hong Kong, people have been waiting as long as three hours outside of pharmacies to buy surgical masks. Demand was so high that some pharmacies had to limit the number of masks customers were allowed to buy. Tens of thousands of local street cleaners have also been confronted with an imminent shortage of the face masks – an essential item in their daily work. According to a survey released last Thursday by the Environmental Services Contractors Alliance (Hong Kong), which polled more than 30 cleaning firms, their protective supplies could only last about two weeks.

In the Philippines, the government distributed free surgical masks to high school and college students after its first coronavirus case was confirmed on Febuary 1. Yet there are still mask shortages in medical supply stores in such major cities as Manila, Pagadian City, and Bukidnon.

Thailand on Tuesday curbed mask exports to ensure it has enough for its own citizens, according to multiple reports.

In France, a manufacturer of respiratory masks is ramping up production four or five times higher than normal. Kolmi Hopen typically produces 170 million masks a year at its facility in Angers, about 200 miles southwest of Paris. Now, though, demand for its products has multiplied, said Guillaume Laverdure, COO of parent company Medicom.

The factory has increased production to seven days week, three shifts per day, and is looking to hire 30% more staff. And that's not the only Medicom location to do so; its US facility is moving to three shifts per day, too. "Our target right now is to protect as many people as we can," Laverdure said.

Masks are now hard to come by in the United States, as well.

The National Community Pharmacists Association on Thursday released results of a national survey that said 96% of local pharmacies are experiencing a shortage of surgical masks, and nearly 40% are don't have enough N95 respirators.

"All the masks that we restocked in the morning were gone by the afternoon," a salesperson at a Walgreens pharmacy located near the Hudson Yards of New York City told CNN Business.

Leading US pharmacy chains, such as CVS and Walmart, show few to no medical masks or N95 respirators on their websites.

"We are working with our suppliers to meet customer demand for face masks," Amy Thibault, senior manager of communications at CVS Health, told CNN Business. "We will re-supply those stores [that are out of masks] as quickly as possible."

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