The effectiveness of masks to ward off the new potentially deadly strain of coronavirus is largely a moot point in Red Deer.
There are almost no masks to be found at local pharmacies.
Most local drug stores have already sold out of the surgical “dust” masks, as well as the more air-tight N95 masks with filters, which are thought to be more effective at stopping virus transmissions.
“We can’t even get them from the warehouse,” said Shelley Jack, a pharmacy technician at Piper Pharmacy in Red Deer, since suppliers are also sold out at the moment.
Jack sold the last one at her store Tuesday to a client who seemed nervous about the prospect of the new strain of coronavirus virus potentially spreading to Red Deer.
But travellers were the largest group interested in purchasing masks, while they were still available at Millerdale Pharmacy.
“In our experience, it was especially people who were travelling overseas, to China, who were coming in,” said a pharmacy technician at the outlet.
She hopes to get another shipment of masks in by the end of the week, but said there’s no guarantee.
Jen Smith, a pharmacy technician at the IDA Pharmacy, said her store doesn’t stock masks, but she’s heard the thin paper surgical ones worn by some people at airports can’t stop the wearer from contracting the virus — although it could help an already-infected wearer from spreading the virus through cough droplets.
The more advanced N95 masks can be tightened around the nose to stop unfiltered air from getting in, and so are considered more effective, said Smith.
But these are in short supply. At the moment, they can’t even be ordered from Amazon. They are listed as “unavailable.”
Smith advises concerned central Albertans to get the regular flu shot. While it won’t stop the new virus, she said it can stop thousands of other deaths that happen every year from more common flu bugs.
“There were 68,000 deaths from influenza,” last year, added Smith, compared to 106 reported deaths, so far, from the new coronavirus.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, said masks are not recommended in a community setting, as they are in a hospital setting, because the staff are well trained to take off the mask in a proper manner and to do that in a timely fashion.
Mask wearers, in a community setting, can get complacent, not realizing their hands are potentially still coming in contact with the virus as they are taking off their mask.
Masks, however, are helpful when someone is feeling sick and want to limit the exposure to other people.
“That will be the time for a community to consider wearing masks – for sick people to prevent or limit the risk of spreading it,” she said.
She believes people should focus on following preventative hand-washing protocols — as well as keeping their hands away from their mouths and eyes — rather than thinking masks are the answer.
The surgical mask is sufficient to protect someone from the virus, she added.
Based on what is known, the virus spreads from “droplet spread,” which means when someone coughs or sneezes, they can put small droplets into the air, which can go roughly one to two metres from where they’re standing.
“(In that case) the surgical mask is protection against those droplets. The tighter N95 mask is typically used for airborne transmission for viruses like measles, which spread to much farther distances,” she said.
Hinshaw added the current risk of the virus to Albertans is low, and if that situation were to change, officials are prepared to respond as needed.