British Columbia

Mask shortage frustrates B.C. woman with compromised immune system

As products like face masks and hand sanitizer disappear from pharmacies and department store shelves, a resident in Colwood B.C. is asking the public to stop hoarding them so people with illnesses can have access.

Marina McCaffrey needs to wear mask around sick people, but says she can't find any due to coronavirus 'panic'

Marina McCaffrey, who has an autoimmune disease, says she and other people who are immuno-compromised aren't able to find health products they may need. (Adam van der Zwan/CBC)

A Vancouver Island woman with a compromised immune system is frustrated that she can't find any face masks due to what she sees as the public's "unnecessary panic" to safeguard themselves against the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

"The minute someone hears that somebody [might be] sick, they immediately think 'well, a mask will protect me,'" said Marina McCaffrey of Colwood, B.C., who suffers from autoimmune hepatitis, which attacks her liver.

"I'm really frustrated because it feels like people aren't ...informing themselves properly," she said

Her doctor has recommended she wear a mask to protect herself around sick people — for example, on a visit to the doctor's office — and to have one to hand for someone she needs to interact with who is sick. She also takes medication to manage her condition, and uses "hand sanitizer by the gallon," she said.

But in the past week, McCaffrey tried finding masks at Home Depot, Lowe's and Slegg Lumber, and has had no luck. Pharmacies she visited were sold out of these items too.

It means that she's now avoiding being out in public more than necessary, she said. 

"It's really important to think about everybody," said McCaffrey, who's asking the public to talk to their doctors, call the 811 health line, and search online for more information before they panic-buy.

"It's our responsibility to really investigate and learn." 

Products snatched up within seconds

Employees at stores in Greater Victoria say face masks and other protective products are getting snatched up within seconds of being stocked. 

Colton Elder, an employee at Home Depot in Saanich, B.C., says customers are often lined up as workers unload new masks and sanitizer onto store shelves. 

On the West Shore, Lowe's employee Ken Rimbey says a full shipment of masks are often gone by the end of the day, and says many customers pre-order online then ship them to their families overseas. He isn't expecting another shipment of masks for a couple of weeks, he said.

Store employees in Greater Victoria says face masks and hand sanitizer are disappearing soon after being stocked. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

McCaffrey said her husband is also concerned about the mask shortage, given that he works in construction and is often required to purchase and wear protective facial equipment to prevent him from inhaling harmful substances like asbestos.

She said she understands the panic but is still surprised, given the B.C. Centre for Disease Control has stated that face masks often "give people a false sense of security" and can be less effective for a healthy person, as they're more likely to touch their own face while wearing the mask.

B.C. seniors advocate Isobel McKenzie says elderly populations may also have compromised immune systems, though the shortage of protective gear hasn't yet taken its toll on care homes and hospitals, where "supplies are on order from well stocked suppliers in advance."

"There's quite a supply chain there," she said, adding that people from the Ministry of Health would be tracking potential supply shortages.

To prevent the spread of illness, the BCCDC recommends people first and foremost wash their hands and avoid touching their faces.

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