New York, Feb. 29 Fear of the spreading coronavirus has led to a global run on sales of face masks despite medical experts' advice that most people who aren't sick don't need to wear them.
Many businesses are sold out, while others are limiting how many a customer can buy. Amazon is policing its site, trying to make sure sellers don't gouge panicked buyers.
In South Korea, hundreds lined up to buy masks from a discount store. Rumors that toilet paper and napkins could be used as masks have emptied store shelves in Asia of paper goods over the past few weeks.
Both ordinary people trying to protect themselves from the outbreak and medical professionals are facing shortages. well.
Some industry officials are attributing the shortages not just to high demand but to disruptions in supply: An outsize share of the world's surgical masks are made in China — 50%, by its own estimate. But even factories there that have ramped up demand say they are hard pressed to meet local demand. The government has taken over manufacturers, and exports have plunged.
"Before the outbreak of the epidemic, we used to export 600,000-700,000 surgical masks a month, but now the amount is zero," David Peng, manager of Ningbo Buy Best International Trading Co. in Ningbo, south of Shanghai, said. The company's dozen or so suppliers in Hubei, near the center of the outbreak, have been ordered to prioritize government orders.
Apart from shortages of workers, manufacturers say they are struggling to get enough raw materials to make the masks.
"At present, we only receive inquiries from abroad and are trying to negotiate with overseas customers to see whether it is possible to deliver a few months later," said Tony Zhou, sales manager for Suzhou Sanical Protective Products Manufacturing Co.
In the U.S., Walgreens, Home Depot, Lowe's and True Value Hardware are reporting a sharp uptick in sales of masks over the past several weeks and say they are scrambling to get more from suppliers.
Home Depot, the nation's largest home improvement chain, has limited sales of N95 respirators to 10 per person. They have a close facial fit and more filtration material than general surgical masks, enabling them to keep out at least 95% of particles.