Singaporeans rushed out to buy N95 masks yesterday morning, the day after the Government announced it would be releasing stocks to pharmacy stores.
But many shoppers could not get their hands on them at pharmacies such as Unity, Guardian and Watsons as most of their outlets had run out of the masks by lunchtime.
Printing manager Amin Mohamed, 61, visited two Guardian outlets and a Unity pharmacy in Tampines but could not find any N95 masks for his family of five.
"I had to come out in the smog to look for them, and there is supposed to be enough for everyone," he said.
Eventually, he bought two-ply surgical masks from Giant hypermart, "which is better than nothing", he said.
Watsons' merchandising and marketing director Micheas Chan told The Straits Times it has more than one million masks.
They are being delivered to its stores "in the shortest time possible", but there may be "intermittent lack of stock at various outlets" owing to overwhelming demand, he said in an e-mail reply.
A Guardian spokesman said about 50,000 N95 masks will be distributed across its stores at the weekend, starting last night.
To ensure there is enough for all, she said Guardian has set a limit of 10 masks per customer.
Queues also formed at pharmacies in hospitals, which ran out of masks quickly, leaving many people disappointed and upset.
To beat the crowds and queues, people are also searching for masks online.
Ms Goh Yiping, founder of group-buying site AllDealsAsia, said it has received orders for nearly 30,000 N95 masks and 100 air purifiers.
Her company ordered about 100,000 masks from Hong Kong, China and the United States, and they were to arrive in batches from yesterday.
A new fund of $200,000 was set aside yesterday by Community Chest, the fund-raising arm of the National Council of Social Service, to help buy masks and air filters for the vulnerable, like the elderly in senior day activity centres.
As of yesterday, there were two takers - Persatuan Pemudi Islam Singapura East and Marine Parade Family Service Centres.
Meanwhile, the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) has raised the red flag over those profiteering from mask sales.
In a statement yesterday, its president Lim Biow Chuan urged suppliers and retailers to "remain transparent and abide by the regular recommended retail price".
Case also advised people to exercise caution when buying masks of unknown brands or from online retailers, as these "may not provide adequate protection from the haze".
At a briefing yesterday, health officials said there was enough stock of N95 masks for the public. These masks, they added, can be re-used as long as they are not bent out of shape or soiled.
People do not need to wear them indoors.
The officials also said pregnant women should not keep the masks on for too long as they limit air intake.
As N95 masks are now not certified for children, it is better that they stay indoors as far as possible rather than wear the masks when outdoors.
The N95 masks retail at between $1.80 and $3 each.
Additional reporting by Poon Chian Hui