New Brunswick

New Brunswick pharmacies sell out of medical masks amid coronavirus concerns

Medical masks are becoming a scarcity in New Brunswick as fear grows about the ongoing coronavirus outbreak that has claimed 1,113 lives in China and now been confirmed in 24 countries.

WHO warns of global shortage, but masks not recommended for healthy individuals and risks deemed low in N.B.

The N95 medical masks are designed to filter out smaller airborne particles. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Medical masks are becoming a scarcity in New Brunswick amid growing fears about the ongoing coronavirus outbreak that has claimed 1,113 lives in China and now been confirmed in 24 countries.

Pharmacists say some local residents from China have bought the masks to send home to family and friends, while other local residents want the masks to protect themselves during travel.

Now pharmacies like Lakewood Guardian Pharmacy in east Saint John are unable to replenish their supply.

"It was starting to get more difficult to find them," said staff pharmacist Douglas MacQuarrie. "We were looking at … different brands, like I said, different wholesalers, different manufacturers, and we just were kind of coming up short no matter which avenue we took."

There is a global shortage of masks, gloves, gowns and other personal protective equipment, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced last week.

But how well the masks actually protect healthy people from contracting the virus is unclear and the overall risk to New Brunswickers is still considered low, with no confirmed cases of the illness, now called COVID-19, according to medical experts.

Still, New Brunswick's chief medical officer of health Dr. Jennifer Russell declared coronavirus a "notifiable disease" on Feb. 6. That means health officials are obliged to report any suspected cases to Public Health without delay.

The order remains in effect for six months.

MacQuarrie said interest in medical masks at his store seemed to pick up in recent weeks, shortly after the first cases in Canada were announced.

Man bought 10 boxes to send to China

"We had people calling asking, you know, 'Do you sell the N95 masks?'" 

That particular variety is designed to filter out smaller airborne particles than standard medical ones.

MacQuarrie said the staff didn't think much of it at first — but then customers started buying large quantities.

"I had one patient say that they had family back in China that they were sending the masks to," he said. "So he had asked how many boxes [we had] and I think I had about 10 on hand. So we sold him the 10 boxes, each containing three masks."

Since then, MacQuarrie has seen as many as four customers a day come in looking for medical masks.

He said he has been calling around to other area pharmacies for customers, but most locations are also sold out or in short supply.

Some customers have been resorting to the "woodworking" masks available at local hardware stores, said MacQuarrie. They're "saying that, you know, it's better than nothing."

'Surge in demand'

Janet MacDonnell, interim executive director of the New Brunswick Pharmacists' Association, said pharmacies don't normally keep a large supply of medical masks in stock because there isn't usually a big demand. (Stephen MacGillivray Photography)

Janet MacDonnell, interim executive director of the New Brunswick Pharmacists' Association, said Lakewood Guardian is not alone. The association's member pharmacies have reported a "surge in demand" for medical masks.

And since many pharmacies would normally stock only minimal quantities to meet the typical demand from immunocompromised patients or their care providers, it's not surprising they sold out so quickly, she said.

MacDonnell stressed the masks "really ideally at this point should be used for those people that we suspect may have [coronavirus] so that we can prevent it from being spread, and for those health-care workers that are … having to treat patients."

Medical masks are not recommended for healthy individuals as they don't provide full protection and can create a false sense of security, health officials have said.

Canada has seven confirmed cases of the illness, four in British Columbia and three in Ontario. China's total rose to 44,653, as of Wednesday.

You see more people wearing them in public, but will wearing a face mask really protect you from the coronavirus?    2:27

Dan Curran, a pharmacist and co-owner of Rothesay PharmaChoice, said one of his customers just returned from visiting her brother in Taiwan last week and wanted to send him some masks.

"She said they are completely sold out there as well. And unfortunately I wasn't of any help to her either," said Curran.

The best he could do was add her name to a growing wait list, if an order comes in, he said.

"It seems to be the hot topic these days and people are just concerned, I guess, and looking for a way to prevent getting sick."

Flu a threat

Dan Curran, pharmacist and co-owner of Rothesay PharmaChoice, said he's got about a dozen people on a wait list for medical masks, but he said other preventive measures, such as frequent handwashing are believed to offer better protection. (Rothesay PharmaChoice/Facebook)

To prevent infection, experts recommend regular handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands, and avoiding close contact with people who are sick.

Curran contends the flu is a more severe illness in Canada right now than coronavirus and it's vaccine preventable.

Ryan Kennedy, the pharmacist owner of PJC Jean Coutu in Saint John's north end, agrees. He noted influenza killed 85,000 people worldwide in 2017-2018. 

"I think that it does give a little bit of perspective on how serious we should be taking the seasonal influenza as well."

But for the past two or three weeks, an average of three or four customers have called or stopped by his pharmacy daily to request medical masks because of coronavirus.

"So we have lots of demand from people looking to travel … or just, I guess, general concern, but we cannot get any."

Kennedy said he's on the backorder list of three wholesalers, but isn't confident he's going to get any masks any time soon.

"I mean, I know from talking to one of my suppliers I was trying to buy 200 masks and they said somebody had called earlier in the day looking to buy 100,000."

Early signs

The initial symptoms of coronavirus are mainly fever, with a few reports of people having difficulty breathing, and chest X-rays showing signs of pneumonia in both lungs. 

The WHO says signs of infection can include respiratory complaints, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe respiratory problems, kidney failure and even death. 

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.

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