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Will coronavirus fears affect facemask supplies for veterinarians?

2020-2-27 iStock-1202147840 facemasks - blog.jpg

The short answer? Yes.

In fact, it already has. Despite the fact that the effectiveness of facemasks in stopping the spread of the new coronavirus—officially named COVID-A9—is in considerable dispute.

Many experts, like Eric Toner, MD, doubt the effectiveness of face masks for stopping transmission of the virus. Toner, a scientist at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Business Insider that “There’s little harm” in wearing a face mask, “But it’s not likely to be very effective in preventing [transmission].”

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is in Toner’s camp.

They don’t recommend the routine use of respirators to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases, including COVID-19; instead, they recommend everyday preventive actions, such as avoiding people who are sick, washing your hands frequently, and covering your cough or sneeze with a tissue.

But the experts’ opinion on the questionable efficacy of facemasks hasn’t kept Americans from cleaning out stock of facemasks from the shelves of retail pharmacies nationwide.

So is the run on surgical masks a cause for concern among veterinarians?

It could be if you’re low on them.

Dan Hajstrom, a manager at Med-Vet International, a veterinary supply company in Mettawa, Illinois, told NEWStat that they sold out of surgical masks “in the snap of a finger” when fears of the virus ramped up—mostly to new customers who weren’t veterinarians but “people who’d never ordered from us before,” according to Hajstrom—which leaves Med-Vet’s regular customers in the lurch. Because Hajstrom doesn’t know when they’ll have more in.

Like most suppliers, Med-Vet gets its surgical masks directly from the manufacturer.

And, ironically, most surgical mask manufacturers are located in China, where COVID-19 originated. China is, coincidentally, the world’s largest producer of medical facial masks. But due in part to a COVID-19-related shortage of workers, those manufacturers were only operating at 76% capacity as of mid-February, with daily production topping out at 15.2 million masks, a shortfall that has led the Chinese government to adopt rationing.

The demand for facemasks in China alone is so intense that people are traveling outside the country on buying trips to places like Indonesia in an effort to meet demand back home.

The shortage of facemasks is being felt around the world and includes all kinds of masks, from cheaper, standard surgical masks—little more than expandable rectangles of paper—to more substantial masks such as the N95 respirators used in many healthcare settings—the cup-shaped devices that seal tightly to the face with elastic bands (N95 is the designation used by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and indicates that the mask can block inhalation of 95% of airborne particles).

So if your veterinary hospital still has a supply of surgical masks, use them well. It could be a while before you get more in.

Photo credit: © iStock/Kira-Yan