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As coronavirus spreads, Halifax pharmacies struggle to keep medical masks on shelves

Health officials say medical masks won’t protect you from coronavirus

4 min read
Photo illustration of a woman wearing a blue medical mask.
caption Photo illustration of a woman wearing a medical mask.
Chris Stoodley

Even though Nova Scotia has no reported cases of coronavirus, pharmacies in the Halifax region are selling out of medical masks.

Pharmacies are trying to keep up with demand, including Lower Sackville’s The Medicine Shoppe. Pharmacist Anita Bolivar said the masks are on allocation as the pharmacy’s supplier tries to meet the high demand.

“It’s not like they say, ‘We will send you five tomorrow.’ It’s, ‘at some point, some will show up,’” Bolivar said.

“So, we don’t really have an exact date or even an exact quantity that we will be getting. If a person wants them, they might have to call or check in to stores on a regular basis to see what’s happening.”

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This echoes what more than a dozen other Halifax-area pharmacies have told The Signal: medical masks are out of stock.

A sign saying a Lawton's is sold out of all face masks.
caption On Jan. 28, the Halifax Shopping Centre Lawtons Drugs displayed numerous signs saying it was sold out of medical masks.
Chris Stoodley

Are they effective?

Despite being sold out, health officials say people shouldn’t bother wearing a mask.

“If you’re trying to keep from getting sick, the mask is of very little usefulness for you,” Bolivar said.

Dr. Robert Strang, chief medical officer of health for Nova Scotia, said in an interview that public health officials actually discourage wearing medical masks.

“It doesn’t really give much protection,” he said. “People tend to reach in under the mask, scratch their nose, rub their face and then they contaminate their mask.”

If people insist on wearing a mask, the N95 mask offers slightly better protection. But according to Strang, the N95 mask must be properly fitted to work and is typically reserved for health-care workers.

Like the regular medical mask, local pharmacies are also sold out of the N95 mask.

Strang and Bolivar say people need to get a flu shot, stay home if they’re sick, practice good cough etiquette and practice proper handwashing.

Local reaction

For some, this is adequate advice.

Iris Wong is a fourth-year kinesiology international student at Dalhousie University. She said the Chinese media is saying the same thing: these masks won’t protect people from diseases.

“I don’t think these work,” she said. “I don’t think it’s helpful.”

She said her friends in Canada don’t typically wear masks. In China, she said, the people she knows wear them for different reasons. She might wear one because she doesn’t want to be recognized. Some women might wear one because they’re not wearing makeup. Some might wear one because of China’s poor air quality.

For others, having masks to wear is reassuring.

Robert van Gurp, a Halifax resident, said he doesn’t think we’ll ever see coronavirus in Halifax. Still, his wife ordered a box of masks.

“The experts say there’s a limited effect in this in trying to prevent a virus, so there’s that in mind,” he said. “But certainly to the average person, it seems like something that would prevent exposure to some contaminants.

“We did it just because everybody else is doing it as well. It just seems like a good idea to have some on hand.”

What people can do

The novel coronavirus originated in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in China. China, Taiwan, Australia, Cambodia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea, United Arab Emirates and the United States report confirmed cases. As of Thursday, there are three confirmed cases in Canada: two in Toronto and one in British Columbia.

Anita Bolivar said pharmacists have been told that if they see someone coughing and sneezing, they should ask if they’ve been in contact with someone who was recently in Wuhan or if they were there themselves. She said otherwise, they’ll assume it’s a cold or allergies.

Dr. Robert Strang said people can stay updated on the coronavirus in Canada at the Public Health Agency of Canada’s website.

“My first piece of advice would be to take a deep breath,” Strang said. “The risk of coronavirus in Canada and Nova Scotia remains low.

“Focus on the things that are here and what we need to do to make steps to keep ourselves healthy now and not worry really about the coronavirus.”

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About the author

Chris Stoodley

Chris is a fourth-year student at the University of King's College. He's a big fan of all things visual and loves to keep up with the world of...

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