The primary purpose of a surgical mask is, contrary to popular understanding, to keep germs in and other matter, like blood or dust, out. According to a fact sheet from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, surgical masks are, by design, insufficient protection for a healthy person looking to avoid airborne illnesses: “Surgical masks are not designed to seal tightly against the user's face. During inhalation, much of the potentially contaminated air can pass through gaps between the face and the surgical mask and not be pulled through the filter material of the mask.”
But has that stopped people around the world from hoarding surgical masks in the midst of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak, which the WHO declared a “global health emergency” last month? Not a chance. According to Vox, surgical masks are in high demand and even selling out at some pharmacies in the U.S. as panic surges—despite the fact that there are only 11 confirmed cases of the virus here so far. “On Twitter, users are posting photos of empty store shelves and marked-up prices of face masks online, reminding others not to hoard supplies,” the article says, and noting that these buyouts are taking place “even in states where there isn’t a serious coronavirus threat.” Influencers are even posing in face masks and posting photos of themselves under the #coronavirus tag, because why wouldn’t they, right?
Although Vox reported that some are purchasing the masks in order to send them to friends and family overseas, where similar surgical mask shortages are going down, many people are purchasing them for protective reasons. Ironically, this could lead to an increased vulnerability for the segment of the population most likely to be exposed to coronavirus and other contagions: medical professionals. According to the New York Times, studies conducted during the 2003 SARS outbreak and during the annual flu season showed that face masks are effective when it comes to keeping workers who have regular, direct contact with infected patients safe.
With at least one doctor confirmed dead after treating patients with coronavirus—China’s Li Wenliang—it’s clear that medical professionals in contact with coronavirus patients need all the protection they can get. So, to recap: Don’t blame the Wuhan coronavirus on Chinese food or Asian people, don’t spread misinformation on Tiktok, and don’t hoard medical gear. Do wash your hands regularly. (Do that anyway, you freaks!) Hopefully, that’s simple enough to quell at least some of the fears of the American public. But until that happens, or the situation changes significantly, don’t make things worse by buying a mask that won’t protect you from a threat that you’re probably not even facing.
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