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Amid coronavirus fears, stores run out of masks. Do you really need one?

Like elsewhere in the U.S., stores in St. Petersburg were out of or running low on protective face masks Friday. But those masks don’t do much for people who aren’t sick.
A sign outside Bailey's Pharmacy on 34th Street N in St. Petersburg advertises face masks, which have been selling out online and at other stores amid fears about coronavirus. As of Friday afternoon, the pharmacy had six boxes of masks left. [JACK EVANS | Times]

ST. PETERSBURG — Dr. Vai Alandikar lifted a set of four boxes from his spot behind the counter at Bailey’s Pharmacy on 34th Street North.

“These are worth their weight in gold right now,” he said with a little grin.

Each of the boxes contained 50 standard face masks — the kind that cover the mouth and nose and loop around the ears, like you might imagine a surgeon wearing. Back behind the counter, he had two smaller boxes with 20 masks each, but that was it. The sign outside still said “FACE MASKS AVAILABLE.”

Dr. Vai Alandikar, pharmacist at Bailey's Pharmacy in St. Petersburg, shows the store's last few boxes of face masks. The masks have been selling out in stores here and elsewhere, and online, amid fears about coronavirus. [JACK EVANS | Times]

These simple masks have become a hot commodity in the past few days as Americans watched the spread of Wuhan coronavirus, which as of Friday had infected nearly 10,000 people worldwide, more than 9,600 of them in China, according to the Associated Press. Six cases have been confirmed in the U.S. as of Friday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The outbreak has prompted some people to buy the masks in bulk and hoard them, the New York Times reported this week, even though masks do little to safeguard most healthy people. Business Insider reported Tuesday that Amazon retailers were already selling out of masks, and Gothamist noted that New York City pharmacies were running out, too.

The demand for masks is present in St. Petersburg, too: Jessica Bucko, another employee at Bailey’s, said people had been calling the store to ask about masks and saying that other stores were out. An employee who answered the phone at Healthmed Pharmacy on Central Avenue said the store’s supplier was out of masks. Karen Grooms, a sales associate at Affinity Home Medical Equipment on 49th Street North said the store had a source for masks but that many distributors were running out of stock.

“We ordered some from one of our distributors ... and they rejected the order until they replenish," said Judy Callahan, who works in retail sales at Suncoast Medical Supply on Tyrone Boulevard. “Right now, it’s hard to find them anywhere.”

Studies have shown that masks are effective in keeping health care workers from getting sick, the New York Times noted, and most hospitals consider it common sense that wearing a mask helps prevent sick people from spreading germs via coughs and sneezes. But Alandikar, the pharmacist, said those worried about coronavirus in the U.S. don’t need masks unless they’re sick or in contact with people who have recently been in Wuhan.

Alandikar said he’s said the same thing to everyone who’s asked him how to best prepare for the possibility of coronavirus expanding: Wash your hands; take basic precautions like seeing a doctor if you feel sick; keep your home clean. And don’t automatically assume you need to prepare for the worst.

“There’s no need to panic,” he said. “Panic makes it worse.”