The increasing demand for surgical masks due to the coronavirus outbreak has led the government to scramble for supplies and price control measures, while some opportunists have been risking lives by reselling used masks.
More than six suspects were arrested in Saraburi on Monday while they were using washing machines to clean, press, fold, and repackage used masks for resale.
One of the suspects, aged 17, told the police that his mother, who was not at the scene, owned the house that they were using for their operation and that she was running the whole business. They were being paid 1 baht per reused mask.
Despite the arrests, stories like these will become increasingly more common if the government fails to meet the demand for masks as public hysteria fuels hypochondria and real concerns alike.
Mask production increases
While a report from the Private Hospital Association said that 250 hospitals nationwide were running out of surgical masks, the Department of Internal Trade (DIT) has reassured the public that there are sufficient supplies. They said that the total production capacity in the country is around 1.35 million masks per day.
The DIT has asked mask producers to make 600,000 every day, with 350,000 going to medical personnel (150,000 masks go straight to public hospitals, while 200,000 are distributed via the Government Pharmaceutical Organization) and 250,000 to the DIT.
The DIT is then tasked with distributing these 250,000 masks each day to the Thai Pharmacies Association, Thai Airways International, Blue-flag shops, along with retailers such as 7-11, Big C and Tesco-Lotus. The price for these masks is capped at 2.5 baht per mask in a package of four, worth a total of 10 baht. The remaining 750,000 masks are for commercial purposes.
Despite these assurances, social media is abound with stories of mask shortages and of stores quickly running out of masks as soon as they have new supplies.
US medical experts weigh in
Meanwhile, medical experts in the US have urged people to stop buying face masks as the mask itself is not an effective means of protection from the fast-spreading coronavirus.
“Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS!” US Surgeon General Jerome Adams said via Twitter on February 29. “They are NOT effective in preventing the general public from catching coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”
America’s top doctor said the best way to protect yourself against the outbreak was with everyday preventative action, like “staying home if you are sick” and “washing hands with soap and water” to help slow the spread of the virus.
David Heymann, who led the World Health Organization’s infectious disease unit at the time of the SARS epidemic in 2002-2003, said wearing face masks could be useful if you’re sick in order to stop you from spread the virus through coughing and sneezing. However, a mask that is being used is sometimes “not very effective” because people take it off to eat, or wear it improperly.
“So, there is really not a lot of evidence [to support wearing masks],” he said at a Chatham House press briefing last month.
“One of the most important ways of stopping respiratory outbreaks such as this is washing hands,” Heymann added.