Face masks aren't going to save us from contracting the coronavirus while commuting or grocery shopping, health officials say. But they do help health professionals working with infected patients in a closed environment. And uninfected people around the world are hoarding them. So the US surgeon general tackled the shortage Saturday with a bluntly worded message to Americans: "Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS!" Jerome Adams tweeted. "They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if health care providers can't get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!" The online rush on masks has led to price gouging and a proliferation of counterfeits, the New York Times reports.
The masks are best at keeping the wearer from spreading the virus, a World Health Organization official says. "There are limits to how a mask can protect you from being infected." The N95 masks, which are thicker and block smaller particles than others, are most in demand. The CDC says they're what health workers should wear, but even those masks aren't effective at protecting uninfected people, per CNN. "The viral particles are too small" to be filtered out, an expert said. In addition, surgical masks are needed because they "protect you as a patient in the operating room from bacterial contamination," an expert said before adding a similar plea: "Stop buying and hoarding them!" (Read more coronavirus stories.)