Yesterday, the CDC announced that it expects the Corona virus to begin spreading in the U.S. The director of the CDC stated “This whole situation may seem overwhelming and that disruption to everyday life may be severe, but these are things people need to start thinking about now.”
I don’t consider myself a “prepper” per se, but I, like many other dedicated couponers, have at least a month’s worth of food on hand at home at any given time, simply because I stock up during sales and meal-plan from my freezer and pantry, not by what I’m bringing home from the store each week. I’ve always felt comfortable that if a minor emergency struck (snowstorms, extended power outages) we could bunker down at home for quite some time without needing to go anywhere.
The CDC’s announcement did make me start thinking in more detail about what I might want to have on hand if the virus begins spreading the way it has in Italy over the past week. If you haven’t yet seen photos or video of what’s going on over there, it’s just as upsetting as China’s situation — grocery store shelves are empty, streets are roadblocked, and more than 50,000 people are quarantined in various neighborhoods. What’s particularly shocking to me about the situation in Italy is how quickly it happened — in under a week’s time.
Back in December, when news of the Corona virus first hit, my kids were very interested in the news reports about it — especially my youngest son. Once he learned that it spreads via the mouth, nose, and eyes, he told us he would begin wearing his paintball goggles to school.
His new protective eyewear was initially met with understandable frustration from his homeroom teacher. When he was told to remove the goggles, he stated that if he was not allowed to wear them for Corona avoidance, he would like to wear them for “style reasons” — pointing out that some people wear clear glasses because they’re fashionable! (That’s my kid!) As he wore the goggles around the school, his other teaches were less concerned. His gym teacher looked at his eyewear and told him “Yeah… I’ll let another teacher deal with that.”
I do admire his tenacity and commitment to his belief that he is being proactive in avoiding Corona! In the weeks since his new stylish eyewear made its debut, another classmate also began wearing swim goggles for the same reason..! Yes, my son is well aware that in a country of 330 million people, just 60 people have the disease, so the odds are in everyone’s favor for now.
We had a family trip earlier this month though, and I began thinking about face masks. Apparently I thought about them later than I should have, as when we arrived at the Orlando airport two weeks ago, we saw quite a few people milling about in masks. After the CDC’s announcement yesterday, I began reading up on what kind of face masks are most effective against the virus and learned that N95 face masks are the considered the best kind to block the virus — the lightweight surgical face masks won’t do the job.
Well, N95 masks are next to impossible to find anywhere now. Something that you could easily find at any medical supply, hardware or automotive store prior to the Corona virus outbreak is now a scarce commodity. I began searching inventories for every store in the area that should carry these – Menards, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Ace Hardware, AutoZone, Advanced Auto Parts, O’Reilly’s, Harbor Freight… every one of them is sold out. Amazon is also sold out, and third-party Amazon sellers are selling them for four times the price.
There’s nothing like finding out that you can’t have something to make you want it more, is there? Now I was determined to find some masks! In the middle of my mask-hunting, I was talking to a friend about the mask shortage, and I asked if he wanted me to pick some up for him if I actually found some – assuming he was as unprepared as I was. He told me no, he was all set, as he already had 40 of them.
(This was when I realized that I was really, really behind the curve on looking for masks. The CDC announcement was a real wake-up to me to start getting things in order, but I did not have the foresight to buy these masks before many other people did. Indeed, a post in Reddit Preppers noted that the best time to stock up on these was over a month ago.)
I continued searching online inventories of local stores that I thought might carry the masks, and I finally found some at Farm & Fleet. Their website showed that they had three 2-packs of 3M N95s in stock. Six masks was better than zero, so I placed an online order for pickup in store.
An hour later, the Woodstock store called back and said that they didn’t have the masks after all, and that “they’re flying off the shelves. Some people are buying them just to resell on Ebay. The 15-packs are going for $100 there.” The employee I spoke with said that they did have some Milwaukee N95 masks in store last night though, “although we might not tomorrow. They’re not even on the website, so you’d have to come in and get them.” I asked her to hold some packages for me until I could get to the store this morning.
When I got to Farm & Fleet, they had the Milwaukee masks on a freestanding display immediately inside the front door. The top-shelf N95 masks are sold out. The lower shelf has the same masks, but they have an additional rubber seal around the edges. They also have a higher price — but they were there, and they were in stock.
I also checked out the aisle where their 3M and other respirators normally would be stocked – empty. They did have some reusable face masks and filters, and traditional dust masks, but no N95s.
Then, I went across the street to the Woodstock Menards just to see if they too were really out of masks.
Not only was Menards out, they have signage in the aisle noting that the shortages are due to Corona-related demand.
It is not anticipated that stores will get more inventory in anytime soon, as government agencies are implementing allocation protocols on the N95s, meaning that as new masks are manufactured, they will get first priority to purchase them.
For what it’s worth, Menards did still have a few R95 masks on the shelves. From what I’ve read, these have the same particle filtration as the N95 (95%) but the Rs are also oil resistant. I’m guessing that because the N95s are getting all of the attention right now, people may not realize these are also good mask candidates. (There are also P95 masks, and N99s, N100s, R100s, and so on. The higher the filtration, the more they cost too, but those would also be an option.)
The Washington Post has a lengthy, informative article on how the mask shortage is affecting the healthcare industry too, and this Fox News article states that because so many of these masks are made in China, the entire supply trade is affected because “we have offshored far too much of our supply chain, not just for corona, but also for the essential medicines we need… In terms of the immediate issue… the N95 face masks, China put export restrictions on those masks, and then nationalized an American factory that produces them there. ” China is keeping all of the masks made there for their own needs at the moment.
At both stores, I also noticed that they were sold out of splash-resistant eye goggles. It made me think of my son’s insistence on wearing his paintball goggles out and about, and I suspect that many of the people buying masks have also been buying these for eye protection, as they seal around the face.
If we do reach a pandemic in our area, simply leaving home to go shopping could be a very different experience. The New Yorker has a fascinating article on an American living in China and the preparations he takes to go shopping for food, including wearing “outside clothes” that he removes as soon as he returns home:
I may be a little more paranoid than I have to be. So first I put on my outside clothes, which I keep in a little corner, and I put on my mask. Going downstairs, I make sure not to press the elevator buttons with my hands but to use my sweater or something. Steph doesn’t like that I do that; she wants me to carry a pen to press buttons. But you do have to make sure that you don’t use your hands to interact with the world.
Once you get your stuff, you go back upstairs. You change your clothes; you wash your hands. In order to make sure we’re not infecting the pump on the liquid soap, we first use some bar soap and then we can press the pump to wash our hands. Everything we bought, all the ingredients, all the packaging, we put it in its own quarantine. We put it all out on the balcony, we spray all sorts of sanitizers on it, and let it sit outside for a couple of hours before we bring it inside.
I sincerely hope that things will not get so bad that we will need to use the masks I purchased, but I would rather have them and not need them than be in a situation where we aren’t able to buy them. I’m still struck by how rapidly the cluster of Corona virus infections has spread in Italy — it began there just five days ago on 2/21, and in five days, supermarkets were cleaned out and cities were quarantined. It can all happen so quickly.
If you’re looking for other disaster-preparedness ideas, Ready.gov has a good list of starter items that everyone should have on hand. The CDC also has a helpful image-based guide on how to put on and take off your masks to ensure a proper seal around your face, as well as how to remove them without touching the outer mask surface.