Public should use surgical masks, not N95 masks, to guard against Wuhan virus spread: Experts

Surgical masks can help reduce the spread of the virus and are more practical for the general public to use. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
A woman wearing a surgical mask during the haze in Clementi, on Sept 25, 2019. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - 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 on Wednesday (Jan 22).

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.

Surgical masks can help reduce the spread of the virus and are more practical for the general public to use. 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.

They are designed in a way that would make it difficult for people to breathe in if they are worn properly.

Prof Leo said: "If you find the N95 mask easy to breathe in and comfortable, you are wearing it wrong and it's 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 in 20 minutes were seen buying boxes of N95 masks, with only one person buying surgical masks.

Mr Koh added that the Government is aware of increased sales of surgical and N95 face masks in the past two weeks.

Adult surgical masks were sold out at the Guardian outlet in Bishan's Junction 8 shopping mall on Jan 23, 2020. Only children's masks were available. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

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 sanitizers and thermometers have tripled in the same period.

Its spokesman added that it does have sufficient stocks of the items at all its stores.

Watsons said it has seen more sales of masks, thermometers, Vitamin C and sanitizers recently, without elaborating. It said it is taking steps to ensure enough supply to meet consumer demand.

A Watsons employee at its National University Hospital Medical Centre outlet said that the store's masks were sold out two days ago and that she is not sure when new stock will be coming in.

At Junction 8, both the Watsons and Unity Pharmacy outlets had run out of both N95 and surgical masks.

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Customers flocked to the Guardian outlet in the basement, where boxes of N95 masks were lined up behind the counter. Each box contains 20 masks, and costs $38.

Housewife Jennifer Tan, 60, who bought two boxes of N95 masks, 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 it."

Chinese national Li Yi Xuan, 21, who is studying in Singapore, bought three boxes of N95 masks. He and his friend had earlier tried to find the masks at pharmacies in Toa Payoh and Serangoon, but the stores there had run out of stock.

He will be giving some of the masks to his family members when he returns to his hometown in Xi'an for Chinese New Year this Saturday.

He added: "It will be good to take precautionary measures. I won't wear the mask here, but I will wear it when I transit in Shanghai."

Additional reporting by Melissa Heng

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