Last month, the U.S. surgeon general, Jerome M. Adams, urged the public to stop buying masks, warning that they would take away important resources from health care professionals. This week, Vice President Mike Pence asked construction companies to donate their N95 masks to local hospitals, and to stop making new orders.
A person is more likely to get infected by touching contaminated surfaces than from a droplet traveling through the air, according to infectious disease experts, who also warn about accidental contamination by touching the outside of the mask. But they also encourage health care workers to take serious precautions, given the risk their work exposes them to.
“We don’t have immunity; we don’t have prior exposure; a lot of people are susceptible and the virus is easily transmittable,” said Dr. Lucy Wilson, a professor of emergency health services at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. “I think it’s pretty unprecedented in modern times, and we are entering the crisis point.”
Dr. Wilson, an infectious disease physician and former public health official, said potential solutions to the shortage could include the federal stockpile, masks donated from other industries and increased domestic production.
The federal government’s Strategic National Stockpile of medical supplies includes 12 million medical-grade N95 masks and 30 million surgical masks — only about 1 percent of the 3.5 billion masks that the Department of Health and Human Services estimates would be needed over the course of a year.
During similar outbreaks in the past, like the SARS epidemic in 2003, a large number of hospital workers got infected, Dr. Wilson said. Protecting medical professionals is essential to managing the pandemic.
“Health care workers have become very vocal about their safety concerns because they are really on the battlefield 24 hours a day,” Dr. Wilson said. “They have organized and are raising awareness.”