A top infectious disease expert and the Ministry of Health (MOH) have said that the public should not rely on N95 masks to guard against the Wuhan virus, even as they fly off the shelves at pharmacies.
Instead, surgical masks are more appropriate in this case, the expert and MOH said yesterday.
Surgical masks can help reduce the spread of the virus and it is more practical for the general public to use them.
They are meant to help block large-particle droplets and splatter from reaching the wearer's mouth and nose, and reduce exposure of the wearer's saliva and respiratory secretions to others.
N95 masks, which are tighter fitting, are designed to effectively filter airborne particles. They have been used in Singapore during haze situations.
National Centre for Infectious Diseases executive director Leo Yee Sin told The Straits Times that N95 masks are not recommended for the general public. They are mainly used by medical staff.
The mask's design makes it difficult for people to breathe in if it is worn properly.
Prof Leo said: "If you find the N95 mask easy to breathe in and comfortable, you are wearing it wrong and it is no use... you think you are protected, but you are not."
Checks by The Straits Times at five pharmacies in Clementi and Bishan found that four had run out of N95 masks in the last few days, with three out of surgical masks.
At the Guardian pharmacy in Junction 8, at least five people within 20 minutes were seen buying boxes of N95 masks, with only one person buying surgical masks.
During a news conference yesterday, Ministry of Health group director of operations Koh Peng Keng said: "For the general public, if they fall sick, our advice is that they should wear a face mask, a normal surgical mask, and not use the N95 masks."
He also urged those who are sick to be socially responsible. They should put on a face mask to capture their respiratory droplets, and go to a healthcare facility quickly to get checked.
Mr Koh added that the Government is aware of increased sales of surgical and N95 face masks in the past two weeks.
But there is no need to worry about a potential shortage as the Government usually has a stockpile of such items that can last for more than six months, he added.
Associate Professor Kenneth Mak, the designate director of medical services at the Health Ministry, said major retailers are working to procure more masks. Should they face shortages, the Government will step in to help, he said.
Guardian, one of the major pharmacies in Singapore with about 115 stores islandwide, said sales of masks have quadrupled in the last two weeks.
Meanwhile, sales of hand sanitisers and thermometers have tripled in the same period.
Watsons said it has seen more sales of masks, thermometers, Vitamin C and sanitisers recently, without elaborating.
Housewife Jennifer Tan, 60, who bought two boxes of N95 masks at the Guardian outlet in Junction 8 yesterday, said: "It seems quite serious with the human-to-human transmission overseas, so I decided to buy the masks. Once there is a case in Singapore, I will start wearing them."
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- Additional reporting by Melissa Heng