Swine flu scare creates mask shortage

Sunday, May 3, 2009

YARMOUTH, Maine - HME providers have been overrun with consumers frantic to buy respiratory masks as protection against a potential swine flu epidemic.

"I have people on a waiting list," said Michael Normand, a repair technician at Northshore Medical Supply in Houston, where the first death outside of Mexico was recorded on Tuesday. "Here in Texas, they are coming in from Mexico to buy them. One guy came in and spent $300 or $400 buying all my masks."

As of Friday, there were 141 confirmed cases of swine flu in the United States, with the majority in Texas, New York and California, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

American Medical Equipment sold $5,000 worth of masks in one day through its retail store in Houston, said Sandra Hoskins, company president.

"We got another order in yesterday at 9:15 and by 9:30 they were gone," she said. "We ordered the last stock from one of our distributors--92 boxes. She said those were the last available in the U.S."

Providers experienced similar increases in mask demand during other public health scares, including SARS and the bird flu.

Masks vary widely in price and clinical effectiveness. For example, the popular N95 respirator mask, which filters out microbial particles, retails for about $35.

"We ordered more masks as soon as they announced people should take precautions," said Hoskins. "But a lot of this is hype. Historically, the swine flu has been a very mild flu."

Many distributors report that they are running low on masks and hand hygiene products.

"We are placing expedited orders to bring in additional supply, but availability will be product specific," said Jerreau Beaudoin, director of communications for Medline. "At the same time, we are working diligently to uncover new sources in supply to meet this spike in demand."

At Cobra Medical in Doral, Fla., near Miami, provider Jack Marquez stopped selling masks in order to ensure he had enough for his employees. Miami had several suspected--but not confirmed--cases of swine flu last week.

"We've activated our infection control policy," said Marquez, company president. "Our drivers are going out with masks on site visits. This is an area with a high Hispanic population with a lot of people coming in and out of Mexico all the time."