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Bay Area, Calif., Clinics Seek Masks for Coronavirus in Light of Shortage

“There is a worldwide shortage today of masks ... primarily related to the fact that the demand has spiked for these products,” Stanley Bergman, CEO of Henry Schein, one of the world’s largest distributors of masks to medical and dental offices, told CNBC last week.

by Catherine Ho, San Francisco Chronicle / February 11, 2020

(TNS) - In late January, as the coronavirus continued spreading across the globe, the Foothill Community Health Center in San Jose, Calif., had a problem.

The center, a nonprofit network of medical and dental clinics, was running low on N95 masks — the respirator mask that officials recommend health care workers wear when coming in contact with patients who may have coronavirus.

“There’s a huge shortage,” said Umer Murtaza, the safety manager and facilities coordinator for Foothill’s clinics. Staff normally wear surgical masks during flu season, but with the coronavirus starting to spread beyond China, Foothill wanted to upgrade to N95s. It had some, but not enough.

After some searching — Foothill’s normal suppliers, facing a spike in demand, told Murtaza that N95s were on back order and couldn’t be shipped for weeks — Murtaza was able to get supplies from Direct Relief, a Santa Barbara nonprofit that is distributing N95s worldwide. But the problems run deep: Mask companies are reporting global shortages, partly due to the fact that most of the world’s face masks are made in China and Taiwan, according to the New York Times. The Chinese government has directed Chinese mask manufacturers to temporarily halt the export of masks in order to preserve them for Chinese residents.

The illness has infected more than 43,000, mostly in China, and officials announced Monday that deaths had exceeded 1,000.

“There is a worldwide shortage today of masks ... primarily related to the fact that the demand has spiked for these products,” Stanley Bergman, CEO of Henry Schein, one of the world’s largest distributors of masks to medical and dental offices, told CNBC last week.

Supply chain problems have hit at least one local dentistry program. San Francisco’s University of the Pacific Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry recently began taking steps to maintain its existing supply of Level 3 surgical masks — which fit more loosely around the face than respirator masks like the N95 — because masks from its vendor are temporarily on back order. The school recently suspended the use of masks by students in the “simulation clinic,” where students practice on dummy patients. It has also removed masks from an area of the school where the public could access them, so that it could make sure students had enough.

The Level 3 masks are also in high demand, though experts say they provide less protection against tiny airborne particles than N95s.

“Masks from our vendor are temporarily on back order, but we do have enough masks on hand in our patient clinics for the coming weeks,” University of the Pacific assistant dean Eve Cuny said in a written statement. “We continue to use our existing supply in all patient interactions as required by health guidelines, so patient care is not being compromised.”

When Murtaza of Foothill contacted Direct Relief, the group immediately sent 2,250 N95 masks to Foothill’s San Jose clinics. It also shipped 11,000 N95 masks to North East Medical Services, a medical clinic in San Francisco’s Chinatown, in late January, according to a spokesman for Direct Relief. North East Medical Services declined to be interviewed.

“We were lucky to get them from Direct Relief,” said Murtaza of Foothill.

Many of Direct Relief’s masks are going to China, where health care workers are on the front lines trying to contain the virus.

N95 respirator masks have become mainstays in Northern California the last few years during fire season, to filter out particulate matter in the air. They are not recommended for the general public to prevent the spread of coronavirus. But face masks, generally, can help prevent the spread of airborne pathogens when worn by someone who is ill, to prevent them from spreading droplets through coughing or sneezing in crowded public spaces.

Frequent handwashing, and avoiding touching one’s eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands, are likely the most effective ways to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses.

Bergman of the mask distributor Henry Schein said on CNBC that the company is working to identify sources for masks outside China and trying to “bring them to market as fast as possible.”

Foothill Community Health Center has not seen any coronavirus patients. A couple of people have called ahead through the phone triage system reporting coronavirus-like symptoms — fever, cough and difficulty breathing — and the clinic has directed them to local hospital emergency rooms and reported the prospective cases to county public health officials, Murtaza said.

The N95 masks are being used by front office staff, nurses and doctors at all 13 clinics, Murtaza said. They need to be replaced every 8 hours. The supply from Direct Relief will probably last six to eight weeks, Murtaza predicted.

“Because there’s a lot unknown about this virus, there’s a lot of questions that need to be answered,” Murtaza said. “We still don’t know if N95 is effective against this virus, so we use it until they get more questions answered.”

Santa Clara County on Monday declared the coronavirus a local health emergency, a declaration that could allow the county to seek more aid and funding, but does not mean there is increased risk to the public. Two out of the 12 confirmed coronavirus cases in California are residents of the county, and they had both traveled recently to Wuhan and have remained in their homes while ill.

Catherine Ho is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @Cat_Ho


©2020 the San Francisco Chronicle

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