Guest Opinion: Those masks you're stockpiling — our nurses and construction workers need them more

Our fear of the coronavirus could be putting the lives of health care workers, painters and contractors at risk.

Petula Dvorak

This is embarrassing, America.

Thanks to our collective refusal to listen to facts, paint department managers across the country aren't talking about eggshell, semigloss, sanding or chemically stripping so much right now.

"Masks, masks, that's all I've done the past two days is tell people we're out of masks," said Bob Moore, an Air Force veteran who works in the paint department at a Lowe's in suburban Maryland.

That's not all he - and many others - want to tell them.

"Seriously people - STOP BUYING MASKS!" U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams said in a tweet on Saturday morning, speaking for Moore, paint store workers and so many others. "They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if health care providers can't get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!"


True, and Adams didn't even mention a whole other population of workers who are now at risk thanks to America's uneducated mask obsession - the ones who guys like Moore deal with daily at his Bowie store.

"Now we have all these people who use them for painting or insulation work and can't get them," he said. "We're getting complaints, but we can't help them. This is happening at all the stores all over."

Anyone who works with chemicals, paint, drywall dust, insulation, fiberglass, silica, sawdust or mold will be vulnerable to lung damage and diseases like silicosis if they can't get the protective masks that are usually part of their tool kit.

Independent painting and construction contractors are coming in and finding empty shelves.The big firms that get automatic warehouse shipments are also being shut out.

This also means that the folks who are truly vulnerable to any kind of flu - let alone the coronavirus - are unprotected, too.

"My mother is in a nursing home, and they're all worried about getting sick all the time," said Carolyn Williams, who was just turned down at the paint department of her hometown hardware store in Bowie.

I visited hardware stores across the region this weekend and found the same thing - empty shelves everywhere.

Some of the hardware store folks I talked to said it began with Chinese Americans buying up huge lots of the masks to send to families in China last month.


"Then, when it happened in Italy, I had Italians coming into buy them. Now it's folks who want masks to send back to families in Africa," Moore said.

It's not just masks that people are stockpiling. Costco was a demolition derby of carts loaded with food, toilet paper, hand sanitizer and bleach.

"Gloves. They're even buying all the rubber gloves," one clerk at the Washington D.C. Costco told me, her head shaking in disbelief.

When my son got his hair cut in a downtown D.C. salon this weekend, the front desk dude with pink hair wore a mask and chic black gloves.

"Everyone's coughing," he complained. "I can't be too careful."

There's already a mask black market. One Craigslist seller is offering the $23, Home Depot 15-pack of N95 masks for $175. On Amazon, the most popular masks are on back order until mid-April.

Workers all over are complaining about difficulty getting the protective gear they need, tying T-shirts or bandannas around their faces to make do. All because of panic.

Panic buying is nothing new.We've seen it when the forecast calls for four inches of snow, and we've seen it when tensions have escalated with foreign countries.


But even in an era when we have boundless access to information, we have managed to ignore the facts.

It was 20 years ago that people stockpiled canned food because the Y2K bug was coming for everyone. That was followed two years later by a run on the duct tape and plastic sheeting that might save us from terrorists and anthrax.

Our fears always seem to overtake common sense.

Chinese restaurants across the nation have gone quiet. The popular Rockville, Maryland, restaurant - Q by Peter Chang - has seen a 50% drop in revenue since news of the coronavirus hit last month, according to Washingtonian magazine.

Beer drinkers (maybe around 4% of those asked in a recent survey) are avoiding Corona beer because of the virus.It shouldn't have to be said, but for the record, Corona beer can't give you the coronavirus.

Sure, the unknown is scary. One too many zombie virus thrillers and we want to be prepared for any unseen event. But in this case, overpreparedness can hurt others.

The N95 mask will not save you from coronavirus, but it may save the lungs of someone doing dirty, dusty, toxic work.

Listen to the information, understand what people like the top doctor in America are saying and let the nation's paint folks get to the springtime palette and brush techniques they'd rather be talking about.

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