Masks can’t stop the coronavirus in the US, but hysteria has led to bulk-buying, price-gouging and serious fear for the future

By , K24 Digital
On Sun, 1 Mar, 2020 14:11 | 2 mins read
face masks
News of Morocco's first patient on Monday coincides with similar confirmations in Tunisia and Senegal. PHOTO | CNN
News of Morocco's first patient on Monday coincides with similar confirmations in Tunisia and Senegal. PHOTO | CNN

Panic over the novel coronavirus is hitting a fever pitch in the US. And despite repeated pleas from health officials not to purchase them, Americans can't stop snatching up masks and respirators.

The mask boom has prompted sellers to jack up prices and exploit demand. This has meant a shortage for medics who need them. And Chinese Americans are buying in bulk to send to their families overseas.

"We need to make sure those N95 masks are available for the doctors and nurses that are going to be taking care of individuals that have this illness," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said during a House Foreign Affairs hearing on Thursday. "And it really does displease me, to find people going out, there is no role for these masks in the community."

To be clear once again, Americans don't need masks. The CDC says that healthy people in the US shouldn't wear them because they won't protect them from the novel coronavirus.

But medical workers who treat patients with novel coronavirus do need them. And, the CDC says, it's crucial that those supplies don't run out.

When it comes to hysteria and panic, though, reason takes a backseat."This is a psychological thing," Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told CNN.

"The coronavirus is coming, and we feel rather helpless. By getting masks and wearing them, we move the locus of control somewhat to ourselves."

Overwhelming demand leads to price gouging

Demand for the masks is the highest its been in months. According to data provided to CNN by Helium 10, a software company that assists Amazon retailers, Amazon users have searched for the word "N95 mask" more than 862,000 times in the last 30 days. In December, users searched for the keyword a mere 4,500 times over 30 days.

And with overwhelming demand comes inevitable price gouging.

The top-selling mask product, a 100-pack of Universal 4533 sanitary dust masks, started selling at $8. The price eventually rose over $200, Helium 10 said.

And even at that price, the product is selling. Or it was -- it's out of stock as of Friday.

Some products don't display a box where users can click to purchase it. Helium 10 said this means Amazon removed the sellers because they'd rapidly increased their prices.

In a statement to CNN, an Amazon spokesperson said removal is part of its company policy to discourage price-gouging sellers.

"Sellers set their own product prices in our store and we have policies to help ensure sellers are pricing products competitively," the spokesperson said. "We actively monitor our stores and remove offers that violate our policies."

But that doesn't stop people from buying them at elevated prices anyway.