Colorado Is Sold Out Of Medical Masks Due To Coronavirus Fears. Don’t Worry, You Don’t Need One

Brazil Virus Outbreak
Andre Penner/AP
Passengers wearing masks as a precaution against the spread of the new coronavirus COVID-19 arrive to the Sao Paulo International Airport in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020.

UPDATE: Thursday, 3/5

Colorado health officials announced the state had its first positive case of the new coronavirus on Thursday, March 5. The patient was an out-of-state visitor to Summit County, a male in his 30s. He had contact with someone who had the disease outside of Colorado. The state tested him for the virus and received a positive result.

Our original reporting continues below.

Medical supply stores around the state are sold out of medical masks but don't worry, you don't need one.

"The reality is that people don't actually need the masks," said Dr. Michelle Barron, medical director for Infection Control and Prevention at the University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus. "I think there's a lot of hype and a lot of, 'Oh, we've got to have this, and we should go buy them,' which is driving the fact that we don't have any now."

Say it with me: a mask is not the best way to protect yourself from the Coronavirus.

Bill Leahy, owner of Independently Yours Medical Supply in Parker, said they've been sold out of masks since the virus hit the news weeks ago.

"This past week we've been getting at least 20 people at each store coming in saying they can't find them anywhere," he said.

Colorado has yet to have a confirmed case of COVID-19, the official name of this strain of Coronavirus, which has infected 83,774 people and killed 2,867 worldwide. The CDC has warned the virus will spread to more of the U.S., and it's likely to make its way to Colorado.

"The best way to protect yourself truthfully, and people don't want to believe this, because it's more interesting to wear a mask, is to wash your hands and make sure that you're not touching your face," Barron said. "That's really how most of these viruses are spread, including Coronavirus."

OK, but what about the N95 respirator mask that filters and blocks 95 percent of tiny airborne particles?

"I think almost everyone I've seen outside of the hospital, that's wearing these in public, don't even have them on properly," said Barron. "I think ends up happening is that it gives them a false sense of security and then they don't realize that their hands are far more likely to be the way they're going to catch this."

For the N95 to be truly effective it has to have a proper seal and then be worn continuously. Barron said she wears them in a clinical setting and that after half an hour it's challenging to breathe in the mask.

"It literally, like, seals on your face. There's no gap. No air is coming through. It's right on top of your nose and under your chin," she said. "There's no way you're going to wear that on a seven-hour flight."

So, neither the surgical nor the N95 mask is going to keep you from getting sick, but what about people who are already sick?

It can limit the spread of the virus when you cough in the mask, Barron said. So, if you're at home sick you can wear a mask and perhaps spare those in your home from your sickly fluids, but for patients with cancer, the mask is more a social deterrent.

"The mask itself is probably not going to keep them from getting the cold," Barron said. "But it's sort of a more polite way of having social distancing without actually having to say like 'I have cancer, please don't sit next to me cause you have a cough right now.'"

And remember, if you are sick just stay home, please. One of the best tools we have for preventing the spread of communicable diseases is quarantine.

If you don't need to wear a mask, then what should you be doing?

"Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands, wipe down surfaces with sanitizing wipes. Keep your phone clean too," Barron said. "Stay hydrated, eat healthy. I mean, common things we recommend for flu actually are very much applicable for this as well. "