SOS Survival Products usually has a ready supply of eight types of filtration masks, including traditional surgical facewear and those that provide heavy duty protection against particulate pollution from wildfire smoke.
But SOS doesn’t have a single mask on its shelves right now. In fact, it has been sold out since January. That’s when fears over the respiratory virus in China called COVID-19 first surfaced and led to a run on every kind of mask. Anyone visiting the Van Nuys store or looking to buy online is coming up short, said Stacy Edelstein, whose husband, Jeff, founded SOS in 1989, the year of the deadly Loma Prieta earthquake in Northern California.
The company won’t be getting a new supply of masks anytime soon.
”We just can’t find any more. Our suppliers are telling us that they won’t have any until September,” said Edelstein, who usually doesn’t work in the store but has been helping staffers serve a crush of customers because Jeff is out of town on a supply-buying trip.
Stores across Southern California and nationwide are experiencing a surge in demand for health gear, shelf-stable food and other supplies as people try to protect themselves from the virus and stock up in case of quarantine or scarcity.
The feeling of urgency rose Tuesday, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised Americans to prepare for the virus to spread.
More than 84,000 cases of the coronavirus, named COVID-19, have been reported worldwide, with more than 2,800 deaths. The CDC has reported 62 cases in the United States, most of whom are people who caught it elsewhere.
Mina Arnao, owner of More Prepared, a store in Hawthorne specializing in disaster goods, said she has not been able to fill online orders as quickly as usual because her supplies are running low: Orders that normally take a day or two have been delayed up to a week, she said. The most popular items include masks, food and hand sanitizer. Manufacturers she works with are also running out of supplies, and some are raising prices, she said. At this rate, she said, it’s inevitable that she will sell out.
Ryan Kuhlman and Lauren Tafuri, co-founders of Preppi, a disaster preparedness company in Los Angeles, said that since the CDC’s announcement Tuesday, they’ve seen online business soar more than 1,000%. The duo, who have operated the business for six years, said they’re relying on about 20 part-time workers to help their seven full-time staffers.
Last year’s magnitude 6.4 earthquake that stuck Southern California on July 4 caused a similar panic among customers, Tafuri said. They said they see spikes in demand about three times a year.
Masks are a hot item — some can filter out germs, and most at least stop wearers from spreading infection by touching their own faces — but washing one’s hands thoroughly with soap and water is the best way to protect against the coronavirus, experts say.
People are advised not to buy masks if they are healthy; that way they will be available if medical professionals need them.
Still, N95 respirators — which fit tightly over the lower face, covering the mouth and nose — have been flying off the shelves.
Retail chains including Walgreens, Home Depot, Lowe’s and True Value Hardware are reporting a sharp uptick in sales of masks over the past several weeks and say they are scrambling to get more from suppliers. Home Depot, the nation’s largest home improvement chain, has limited sales of N95 respirators to 10 per customer.
The government needs more too. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told a Senate panel Tuesday that America has a stockpile of 12 million N95 masks but may need as many as 300 million for healthcare workers.
Companies that make masks are struggling to keep up.
Medicom Group, a Montreal medical supply company, usually makes 150 million masks per year at its factory near Angers, France. At the beginning of February, the factory had orders for 500 million masks. Orders have only grown since then, the company said, and it has hired new workers and increased capacity at its plants, including two in Shanghai and one in Augusta, Ga.
Mike Roman, chief executive of 3M Co., said last month that the company is producing masks “24/7" at its plants in Asia, Europe and the United States.
Some sellers who have masks are asking steep prices.
On Amazon, a third-party seller listed a 20-pack of N95 respirators for $108.99, plus a $50 shipping fee, as of Thursday afternoon. Another kind of mask was priced at $99.99 for a 100-pack, plus a $70 shipping fee.
An Amazon spokesperson said the company is monitoring the site and removing suspicious offers, and that it is “disappointed that bad actors are attempting to artificially raise prices on basic need products during a global health crisis.”
Not all products for sale are even good anymore. 3M has established a five-year shelf life for its mask line, saying the rubber strap and foam strip can degrade, resulting in a loose seal around the nose and mouth, especially if the items are not stored in ideal conditions.
A doctor told The Times that he and his colleagues at Duke University Health System in Durham, N.C., decided to buy 500 masks and ship them to “physicians and nurses on the front line in this battle in Wuhan, China,” where the coronavirus outbreak began. They placed the order through Amazon’s marketplace, but masks that arrived were out of date and had to be thrown away.
In online reviews, more customers complained of expired masks. Another mask’s reviews said customers received expired filters. In response, Amazon wrote to the customer that it would investigate and “take appropriate action,” and the seller halted its sales of the item.
Several retailers across the Los Angeles area, including some Target, Walmart, Rite Aid, CVS and Ralphs locations, were sold out of masks as of Thursday night. Most shoppers there, picking up regular groceries, seemed unconcerned. Others said they had already bought emergency items.
Eric Tew of Marina del Rey roamed the aisles of a Ralphs store Thursday searching for snacks. He said he’d bought three 100-count packs of masks and some hand sanitizer, totaling about $100, awhile ago. He mailed most of the masks to his wife’s family and friends in China, and for himself, he stocked up on preserved food at Costco.
Tew said he wanted to feel prepared, even if he overdid it.
The virus is “probably not going to be that big of a deal” in Los Angeles, said Tew, 27.“If it did break out, I could just wear a mask and walk back here in the middle of the night. I’m starting to realize that I’ve probably overreacted ... but here I am buying stuff.”
The Associated Press was used in compiling this report.