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Coronavirus anxiety prompts run on face masks in Las Vegas

Updated January 28, 2020 - 8:39 pm

In preparation for a trip next month to Antarctica, Las Vegas resident Bob Coffin on Monday checked the aisles of his neighborhood drugstore for a face mask to protect him against the new coronavirus from China that has spread around the world.

But the store was sold out of the masks. “They were throwing up their hands,” Coffin, a former Las Vegas city councilman and Nevada legislator, said of the store’s employees. “Their warehouse was empty.”

A handful of other Las Vegas pharmacies contacted by the Review-Journal said they, too, had sold all of their face masks, one of several signs of heightened concern locally about the worldwide outbreak, which includes five confirmed cases in the U.S.

Face masks and hand sanitizers

Representatives with Walgreens and CVS said that they are working with their suppliers to meet an increased demand for items such as face masks and hand sanitizer.

“Since cases (of the new coronavirus) have been confirmed in the U.S., we have seen a greater demand for those products,” Walgreens spokeswoman Alex Brown said.

Kristen Nordlund, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that “filtering facepiece respirators” approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, such as the N95, will effectively filter out the coronavirus.

“That said, we don’t recommend the general public use face masks at this time,” she said.

“Right now, there is no spread of this virus here in the United States, and that’s why our current assessment is that the immediate health risk from this new virus to the general public is low at this time.”

Psychologist Lynn Bufka said that stocking up on face masks might be a bit of overkill, but the reaction is understandable.

“When we’re faced with a novel situation, it is typical that we’ll feel a little anxiety,” said Bufka, a clinical psychologist and senior director for practice, research and policy at the American Psychological Association.

“In some ways, that’s good for us,” she said. It “helps us to do the things we need to do to face a new situation.”

“It’s a different kind of virus, it’s relatively new,” she said of the new coronavirus. “We don’t really have a sense of how contagious it is, how easily transmitted it is. … We don’t know how serious the illness will be on average.

“That makes it scarier for people.”

Acknowledging that the American public is anxious about the virus, Nordlund said, “We think it’s important to be transparent about what we know — and what we don’t know — when we know it.”

Airport screenings

On Tuesday, the federal government announced it would expand airport screenings for the virus at 15 more airports across the country.

McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas is not one of them, Nordlund said. The selected airports are ports of entry with existing quarantine stations.

There are currently no nonstop flights between China and Las Vegas. A McCarran spokesman confirmed that earlier this month, Hainan Airlines had ended its service between Beijing and Las Vegas.

The resort industry in Las Vegas, which typically hosts thousands of visitors from China and Asia this time of year for the Lunar New Year, is taking its cues from public health agencies, which have not recommended that it implement any additional health protocols.

“Our members are monitoring the situation and are in contact with public health officials regarding the latest information, protocols and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Southern Nevada Health District,” said Dawn Christensen, a spokeswoman for the Nevada Resort Association. “The CDC continues to consider the virus to be of low risk to the American public.”

The Southern Nevada Health District has shared CDC updates and guidance with the local medical community and is in close contact with the CDC, a spokeswoman said.

The CDC has not issued specific recommendations to the public regarding the coronavirus, other than to avoid nonessential travel to China and to follow general tips related to avoiding disease, such as frequent and thorough hand washing.

UNLV and College of Southern Nevada have issued advisories on their campuses about the virus. The UNLV advisory said that it is screening patients who come to the student health center and staff treatment center who recently have traveled and have flu-like symptoms.

Bufka, the psychologist, said that in the face of a new threat, such as the one posed by the new coronavirus, the key is to assess the risk, determine a course of action and then try to move on, without excessive worrying.

As for Coffin, after his unsuccessful stop at his neighborhood pharmacy, he searched his garage and found some N95 face masks he bought more than a decade ago to remedy a mold problem.

When he travels in two weeks, he plans to take the masks with him and to wear one at airports and on flights.

“There’s no telling what kind of condition this outbreak will be in, or where it will be,” he said.

Contact Mary Hynes at mhynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0336. Follow @MaryHynes1 on Twitter.

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