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As people snap up face masks in Japan, doctor says washing hands a better virus safeguard

Highly functional masks that are being ordered in large numbers as a new coronavirus spreads through China and other countries are seen in Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture, on Jan. 30. (Mainichi/Koji Hyodo)

People have been flocking to pharmacies in Japan to grab face masks in the wake of the news of new coronavirus infections in the country, with panic buying observed in some cases. But while masks are said to help prevent the spread of viruses, one doctor has pointed out that there are no grounds for concluding they can prevent healthy people from catching viruses. Meanwhile, the government is calling for calm.

One pharmacy in Tokyo's Chuo Ward said it had received a stream of Chinese and Japanese customers on Jan. 30 asking if the store had any masks. The store had several hundred items in stock, but they were sold out by noon.

"We've ordered more, but we don't know when we'll get them," a worker said.

One 24-year-old Chinese student, who came to the pharmacy with his parents visiting Japan, bought 50 packets of masks for his parents from several pharmacies over the past several days.

"Today I went to 10 stores, but I could only buy three packets," he said. "In Shanghai there are limits on how many you can buy."

Manufacturers, meanwhile, have been ramping up production. A public relations representative for Unicharm Corp. in Tokyo commented, "We've received an extremely large number of orders and production hasn't caught up." Since Jan. 16, when Japan reported its first domestic case of the coronavirus, the company has received up to 10 times its usual number of orders, and its factories are running around the clock.

Clever Co., a manufacturer of mesh products in Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture, says orders for its highly functional masks have flooded in from both Japan and overseas. The company says its masks can prevent the infiltration of viruses, bacteria, and fine particles, while maintaining good breathability, and can be washed and reused. The masks can also be order-made to match the shape of people's faces. Prices start at 13,000 yen. Normally, even in influenza season, the company receives about 20 orders per day, but this year the figure is 30 times higher, it says.

Akiko Ito, commissioner of the Consumer Affairs Agency of Japan, touched on excessive mask buying in a news conference on Jan. 29, saying, "I've heard that demand is increasing in some places, but there is no overall shortage. We'd like people to respond to the situation calmly."

On Jan. 28, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare requested industry organizations to provide a stable supply of masks, while also asking pharmacies and other businesses to refrain from placing excessive orders and from cornering for the purpose of stockpiling.

But just how effective are masks? Eiji Kusumi, a doctor at Navitas Clinic in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, commented, "There is no basis for saying they will prevent viral infection of a healthy person." This is because virus particles are small and they normally pass through the material of masks. However, they can stop the dispersal of particles produced during coughing and sneezing, so having infected people wear masks is said to be effective in curbing the spread of viruses to others.

When it comes to preventing infection, Kusumi says, "The only thing to do is frequently wash your hands." He advises people who arrive home to wash their hands with soap right away for about 30 seconds, making sure to clean under their nails and between their fingers. Since viruses can enter people's bodies through their eyes, noses and throat membranes, he says it is important that people try to avoid touching these parts of their bodies with their hands.

(Japanese original by Asako Takeuchi and Haruna Okuyama, City News Department; Fusayo Nomura, Lifestyle and Medical News Department; and Koji Hyodo, Nagoya News Center)

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