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As new coronavirus spreads, face masks are flying off shelves—but do they work?

VANCOUVER — The World Health Organization has chosen not to declare a global health emergency over the new coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t looking into possible precautionary measures.

Gianni Del Negro, a pharmacy manager with London Drugs in Vancouver, said masks have been flying off the shelves of his Dunbar store and he’s now sold out.

“Every third phone call is, ‘Do you have any masks?’ People are coming into the store asking for masks,” he said. “Typically we might get one or two inquiries a day during flu season. People are concerned about getting sick. This is definitely out of the ordinary.”

Del Negro said he would typically see a spike in inquiries about masks around January or February, which is generally the peak flu season in Canada. But with news of the virus spreading in parts of Asia, it’s sparked even more inquiries this year. The number of people killed by the virus has risen to 25 out of 830 confirmed cases, according to China’s National Health Commission.

“It’s piqued the interest of people wanting to protect themselves or sending masks back home to protect loved ones,” he said.

As for whether masks can actually protect you from contracting a virus, Del Negro said that depends on the type you are using.

“Your typical surgical masks that you would see a doctor using in surgery for instance, those are not going to protect you against the virus,” he said. “If you’re someone who’s actually sick, you might have a cold or flu and you want to protect others, that type of mask will protect droplets from going out into the air.”

Del Negro said usually an N95 respirator mask will help protect against viruses, but it needs to be worn properly to work. But he stresses that when it comes to this new coronavirus, it’s not known yet if even that type of mask is an effective form of protection.

“With this new virus that we’re concerned about, we really don’t know yet. It’s too early to tell whether we can get any protection from that virus with even an N95 mask,” he said.

Del Negro suggests people pay attention to the news and listen to healthcare providers to make sure they have the latest information about the virus.

“I think the public has to understand that this is new. We’re still trying to gather more information. They shouldn’t be panicking. The risk is still fairly low in Canada.

Regular hand washing with soap and water or using hand sanitizer can also be effective at preventing the flu or other viruses, Del Negro said.

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