MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Since the 2019 Novel Coronavirus made international headlines, stores all over the Twin Cities have sold out of face masks.

“We ordered from our suppliers and now they’re out of stock,” says John Hoeschen, owner of St. Paul Corner Drug. He says the last time a run on face masks happened was the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. Before that, it was the 2003 SARS virus.

“I don’t want to say panicked, but they get concerned because it’s something new,” Hoeschen says. “We’ve also had people come in and send product overseas to send to relatives who live in China.”

So, that has viewers like Kathy from Blaine wanting to know: How effective are these masks?

“It’s better than doing nothing,” says Dr. Mark Schleiss, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with the University of Minnesota. “But, a regular surgical mask will just give a tiny percentage of minimal benefit.”

He says there are two types of masks. First, is the surgical masks that are sold at drug stores and commonly given out at hospitals to sick patients. According to the CDC, those masks provide protection against large droplets that come from sneezes or coughs, but not smaller airborne particles.

Doctors and nurses wear those masks in the hospital primarily to protect the patients, according to Julie Curti, an RN with Hennepin Healthcare.

The other type of masks is an N-95 respirator, which can protect against exposure to the smaller particles. Those masks have special filters, require training, are fitted to specific people and are generally reserved for healthcare workers.

Minnesota-based 3M says it’s ramping up its production of those respirators because global demand is outstripping supply.

The Minnesota Department of Health says there’s no reason for healthy people to wear face masks to prevent illnesses, especially with the 2019 Novel Coronavirus.

“The relative risk to the public is very low,” says Jacy Walters, with the Minnesota Department of Health. “We don’t recommend masks for other respiratory viruses, so there’s really no need to start doing that now.”

In healthcare settings, the CDC recommends patients suspected of influenza who are coughing wear a surgical mask. Healthcare workers within six feet of them should wear one as well.

But, outside of healthcare settings, the CDC doesn’t recommend the masks, saying they “may not effectively limit transmission.” Masks are suggested if someone with influenza is coughing and in a confined, public space.

“Our basic guidance is if you’re sick — please stay home, be sure to wash your hands, cover your cough and get your flu shot,” says Walters.

Heather Brown