Don’t wear a face mask… if you don’t have to: WHO

By Eudore R. Chand

GENEVA 5 March 2020: A shortage of protective equipment is endangering health workers worldwide, warned the World Health Organisation (WHO), citing “severe and mounting disruption to the global supply” caused by “rising demand, panic buying, hoarding and misuse.”

Speaking to the media in Geneva on Monday, WHO chief Tedros Adhanon Ghebreyesus said that “we can’t stop Covid-19 without protecting our health workers.” He warned that shortages of supplies such as gloves, medical masks, respirators, and aprons, are leaving doctors, nurses and other frontline healthcare workers “dangerously ill-equipped” to give proper care to patients.

In order to meet global demand for protective gear, the WHO is calling on industry and governments to significantly boost manufacture by some 40 percent, said Wam.

In addition, says Tedros, secure supply chains are needed, export restrictions must be eased, and measures to stop speculation and hoarding need to be put in place.

The agency calculates that some 89 million medical masks, 76 million examination gloves and 1.6 million goggles will be needed for the Covid-19 response every month while the epidemic lasts. WHO has supplied around half a million sets of protective equipment to 47 affected countries, but these supplies are rapidly running out.

Prices surged

Prices of protective equipment have surged since the Covid-19 outbreak. The cost of surgical masks has risen some 600 percent, and the price of gowns has doubled.

Supplies can take months to deliver, says WHO, and market manipulation is widespread, with new stocks of equipment frequently going to the highest bidder.

Tedros acknowledged the fear that many people are experiencing, describing it as a “natural response to a threat that we don’t fully comprehend,” but he explained that, as WHO gathers more data, the agency’s understanding of the disease is improving.

There are important differences, he said, between the common flu virus and Covid-19, although both cause respiratory disease and spread the same way, via small droplets of fluid from the nose and mouth of someone who is sick.

Flu vs Covid-19

However, Covid-19 does not transmit as efficiently as flu, according to the data received so far: people infected by Covid-19 (who are not yet sick) are not major drivers of transmission.

Only one percent of reported cases in China are asymptomatic – i.e. they have the disease, but do not show symptoms – and most of those cases develop symptoms within two days.

The other major difference between Covid-19 and seasonal flu is that Covid-19 causes more severe disease. Also, because it is a new virus, no one has built up immunity, which means that more people are susceptible, and some will suffer severe disease.

Around 3.4 percent of reported Covid-19 cases have died: by comparison, seasonal flu generally kills far fewer than one percent of those infected.

Whilst no vaccines or specific treatment are currently available, Tedros noted that more than 20 vaccines are currently in development, and clinical trials are ongoing. Unlike seasonal flu, containment, added the WHO chief, is still possible for Covid-19, which is why everything must be done to contain the spread of the virus.