As production struggles to meet the global demand for surgical masks amid the outbreak of coronavirus, a worrying trend is developing among those desperate to fend off the virus which has so far killed more than 1100 people.
With fears of direct transmission of the virus rife, residents in China and other areas with multiple confirmed cases are resorting to the constant wear of surgical masks.
And while experts have said the virus doesn’t survive long on surfaces, the Chinese government has urged people to regularly wipe down surfaces in the home to prevent contact transmission.
The fear of transmission through contact, as well as through aerosol transmission where the virus forms with droplets in the air, has sparked a wave of concern, including over how residents are disposing of their used masks.
Singapore resident LiLynn Wan took to Facebook this week pleading with people to stop littering their used masks in public.
“Dear Singapore - please STOP discarding your used masks on the ground,” she urged, sharing several images of masks she’d seen on the ground within a five-minute period.
She said discarding masks in the street meant wearing it in the first place was a waste of time.
“If you are concerned enough about the spread of the coronavirus that you are wearing a mask, it makes no sense to litter like this,” Wan said.
“You are only increasing the chances of this thing getting out of control and increasing the risk to your own health. We can do better than this. We are better than this.”
Her post prompted outrage, with users fearing Singapore’s total of 50 confirmed cases could rise.
“Absolutely inconsiderate, it's so unhygienic,” one person said.
Another slammed it as “disgusting behaviour”.
Many residents have reported using two or three masks weekly, while medical advice in China for medical teams is to change masks up to four times a day. This would equate to the use of two million masks daily by those fighting the virus alone, the BBC reported.
China running low on protective wear
And while general medical advice coming from nations outside of China suggests only those who show symptoms of the virus need to wear a mask, the delayed onset of symptoms after contracting the virus has caused concern over its potential spread and sparked a surge in mask usage.
Masks are selling out in some stores in the US, according to Vox. There are 13 confirmed cases in the US – a nation with a population of 327 million.
The growing demand for masks has led to a shortage globally.
The lack of masks has led to prices spiking considerably and the Chinese government has promised severe punishments for those cashing in on the outbreak.
Last week a Chinese health chief was sacked after his city intercepted thousands of face masks destined for the hard-hit Chinese megacity Chongqing which has more than 500 cases.
Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak where the majority of deaths have occurred, has also faced a serious shortage of masks. Health officials in the city of 11 million people has called on public support for protective supplies such as masks and suits.
Premier Li Keqiang previously asked the European Union to help China get urgent medical supplies.
State media has continuously attempted to ease fears by sharing images of masks and protective gowns in mass production on its social media sites.
Yet China’s 20 million masks produced daily has barely met the demand of a population close to 1.4 billion people.
Factories across China have halted production of goods to concentrate on the production of more masks at the “encouragement” of the Chinese government, Chinese state press agency Xinhua reported.
By February 7, 3000 additional companies in China had begun mask production.
Some countries are also taking their own measures to adequately safeguard its population following the World Health Organisation’s warning on Wednesday the virus poses a “grave threat” outside of China.
While China has purchased hundreds of millions of face masks from overseas to meet demand, India and Taiwan have both banned the export of face masks.
Australia tackles mask shortage
Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy has urged for calm among Australians with 15 confirmed cases so far across the country.
He said only patients who have displayed coronavirus-like symptoms need to wear masks before presenting themselves to their GP or hospital.
“There is no need for the Australian public to wear masks, the only people who should wear masks in relation to this virus are those who are unwell,” Professor Murphy said.
The Pharmacy Guild of Australia has urged for pharmacies to manage their face masks stocks to ensure they aren’t being sold to those who don’t need them.
“We urge pharmacies with stocks of face masks to keep some masks in reserve for those cases where a patient presents with symptoms and a travel history that gives rise to concern that they may have contracted novel coronavirus,” it stated.
GPs have been advised to wear P2 or N95 respirator protective masks when dealing with patients presented with coronavirus symptoms however some medics have spoken out about a lack of masks available.
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