British Columbia

Masks are flying off shelves in B.C., but using them has 'no proven benefit' against coronavirus

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control is not recommending that people use the masks to protect themselves from coronavirus — and would be unlikely to ever issue such a directive.

New coronavirus emerged in China, but cases have been reported abroad

A woman wears a mask while walking past the closed seafood market that has been linked to cases of coronavirus last week in Wuhan, China. (Getty)

Shortly after news broke that a case of coronavirus had been confirmed in Washington state, John Elzinga, who manages an industrial supply store in Langley, B.C., noticed that boxes of his N95 face masks were suddenly flying off the shelves.

"Just [Wednesday] morning there was a big rush, out of nowhere. They were all in looking for the same thing," he said.

"It was unusual. You get the feeling right away that there was something else going on."

The standard-issue industrial dust masks, normally used for construction and industrial manufacturing, weren't being purchased by workers in steel-toed boots and hard hats — his usual clientele — but by "regular off-the-street families," he said.

One person came in and bought 30 boxes all at once. They were soon sold out.

"The good news is they're on sale. This isn't a price-gouging scenario," he said with a laugh, adding that some customers specifically asked if the masks would protect from coronavirus.

These standard-issue industrial dust masks are normally used for construction and industrial manufacturing. (CBC)

But Danuta Skowronski, with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, said the agency is not recommending that people use the masks to protect themselves — and would be unlikely to ever issue such a directive.

"That is a huge cost with no proven benefit. It could run the risk of draining our supply of masks for the real indications that we have in the health-care system, and even from an environmental perspective, it's ill-advised," she said.

Skowronski said the one time she would advise the use of a face mask would be for someone who has symptoms and who is entering a health-care facility for treatment.

Elzinga said he's previously noticed a run on face masks at his store, back in 2003 during the SARS outbreak. At the time, the Public Health Agency of Canada asked a panel of medical experts for guidance on how flu is transmitted and how best to protect against infection, including the efficiency of face masks.

The report found that masks can offer protection, but there's no evidence inexpensive masks can protect against flu virus particles small enough to be inhaled into the lower respiratory tract or the lungs. 

It did find that the N95 masks — like those sold at Elzinga's store — are the most likely to be efficient because they filter particles smaller than one micron in size and provide a tight facial seal.

Diagnostic test developed

On Wednesday, British Columbia's health minister and provincial health officer said officials are closely monitoring the international outbreak, which can cause pneumonia, fever, coughing and difficulty breathing. It has killed 17 people.

China's Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has said the outbreak likely resulted from human exposure to wild animals being sold illegally at a food market in Wuhan and that the virus is mutating. 

The BCCDC has developed a diagnostic test for the new coronavirus, and public health teams have implemented screening for early detection of infections for travellers arriving in airports.

Public health teams have implemented screening for early detection of infections for travellers arriving in airports. (CBC)

Skowronski said the risk to people in B.C. remains low — and for people travelling in China, the best protection is to avoid contact with animal markets and wash your hands regularly.

"I don't want people to misinterpret the intense interest in this virus by public health as an indication that this is a serious threat to British Columbians today," she said.

"Rather, the reason that public health is so interested is that we are in an all-out effort to try to contain this virus and stamp it out, and that requires huge effort by public health at all levels of our health-care system," she said.

Anyone who is concerned that they may have been exposed to, or are experiencing symptoms of, the coronavirus should contact their primary care provider, local public health office or call 811.

With files from Andrea Ross