Health authorities to distribute 20 million masks to handle shortage

Health authorities will distribute 20 million surgical face masks and restrict the conditions of their sale in order to handle a shortage that has affected nearly half of Macau’s pharmacies.

After the first confirmed case of the Wuhan coronavirus in Macau was disclosed by local health authorities yesterday, residents hurried to stock up on surgical masks among other items to confront a potential outbreak in the city. Within hours of the report, some netizens were reporting shortages of masks at Macau pharmacies. Others decried rampant price inflation in response to the growing demand and dwindling supply.

The use of protective masks, which are designed to cover the nose and mouth of users, is considered an effective way to avoid contamination.

According to information disclosed by the Health Bureau (SSM), 160 of the city’s 294 pharmacies do have masks in storage. Only one out of eight masks distributors in the city still had stock as of yesterday afternoon. Macau residents and other people can still purchase masks from other places in Macau, such as in supermarkets.

Yesterday, the SSM disclosed the first confirmed case of the coronavirus in Macau. At a 5 p.m. press conference, the health authority said Macau had registered 23 suspected novel coronavirus cases with 18 of them already cleared, four still undergoing testing and one confirmed.

Within hours of the disclosure, local residents took to social media to protest about speculative practices enforced by some local shops in light of the great demand from the public. Social media buzzed yesterday with reports and photographs of the price hikes for such products.

The Times learned that the prices for the acquisition of N95 particle respirator masks have at least doubled, with the same happening for the more commonly used surgical masks. According to some reports, the price for such masks in some shops has risen by as much as five-fold.

The SSM announced yesterday that, starting from today, some 20 million stockpiled masks will begin to be distributed to approximately 50 pharmacies in collaborative partnerships with public health institutions. They will be ready for collection by the public by Friday, according to the SSM.

These masks will only be supplied to local residents, with each Macau identification card entitling the holder to purchase up to 10 masks at one time. Only after 10 days can the same Macau ID be used to buy masks again.

According to analysts, visitation to Macau over the busy Lunar New Year period is not expected to be impacted by the occurrence of imported cases of the Wuhan coronavirus now confirmed in Macau, Hong Kong and Guangdong Province. As such, Macau may receive as many as 1 million visitors in the seven-day holiday period starting Friday.

The city’s top health official explained that the restrictive sale measure was not intended to restrict the sale of masks, but only to ensure an ample mask supply to Macau residents.

Excluding the abovementioned 50 pharmacies in collaborative partnerships with public health institutions, the sale of masks at other locations, including supermarkets, is not affected by the measure.

SSM director Lei Chin Ion said that further measures or restrictions on mask sales would depend on the development of the situation.

One pharmacy located in the Horta e Costa area told the Times that they were aware of the price hike, noting that most pharmacies are selling the protective masks for around double their ordinary price. The pharmacy stated that they have not raised their prices, continuing to sell the product at its original price.

For the time being, this pharmacy says it still has some masks in stock, but its stock of disinfecting alcohol for hand wash had run out as of yesterday afternoon.

Similar cases have been reported in the neighboring region of Hong Kong, with South China Morning Post reporting stock shortages and similar price hikes across the region as more cases of infection and deaths by the virus are reported by mainland authorities.

SSM director Lei has reaffirmed the need for the population to pay attention to personal hygiene and care. But he also said that protective masks only need to be used in cases of hospital visits or other health care facilities, or when in contact with a large group of people, such as those that work in customer-facing or tourist-facing roles. The masks are not required to be worn, most of the time, by the general population, said Lei.

Two weeks ago, the SSM dispelled accounts suggesting that Macau was facing a shortage of masks in some local pharmacies. The health authority confirmed the availability of masks at the vast majority of the city’s 294 pharmacies and stressed that the supply of masks should be sufficient for the city’s population.

At the time, the SSM also said it had called on pharmacies not to raise the selling prices of the masks in response to the greater demand, and reminding them of their duty to serve the public in a socially responsible way. Renato Marques, Julie Zhu

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