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Trying to mask SARS, the mystery disease

Jackson Bell

Call it mismatched priorities.

As new cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, emerge

daily, locals are flocking to medical-supply retailers to buy masks


for protection. But health-care professionals say few are seeking

information or asking for advice about preventing the disease.

As of Monday, about 3,000 people worldwide and 30 in California

have a confirmed or suspected SARS infection, according to the Center


for Disease Control. At Providence St. Joseph Medical Center, three

patients have been suspected but later cleared of carrying the virus.

Local medical-supply stores claim they have seen astronomical

increases in their sales of protective masks, which might prevent the

spread of the airborne disease.

Richard Emerson, the owner of Eagle Medical Supplies, said it

usually takes him a year to get through a single box, which contains

50 soft cloth masks. He has sold 80 boxes in the past two weeks.


“Suddenly, the state went crazy and the country went crazy,” he

said. “There is a lot of concern and anxiety, and people are telling

me not to go to the airport.”

But despite his high sales, Emerson said his retail price of

$11.95 per box isn’t enough to significantly raise revenues.

Steven Mazlin, the owner of AMC Pharmacy, also said his store’s

rate has jumped from four boxes a year to three a week since SARS

became a local concern.


“Many customers don’t have questions,” he said. “They come in, ask

for one of our [various types of] masks, buy them and leave. They are

usually traveling out of the country.”

But in a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange

Commission, the Walt Disney Co. stated it anticipates reduced

traveling to its theme parks and resort locations due to the disease.

Despite the spike in mask sales, though, the public has shown

lukewarm interest in seeking professional advice.

“It’s really odd,” Target pharmacy manager Naz Ebrahimi said. “I

have had no phone calls, concerns or questions about SARS among the

customers or even the staff.”

Susan Taylor, a nurse epidemiologist and manager of infection

control at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center, said from her

perspective, people have shown a lesser fear of SARS than other

diseases from the recent past.

During the anthrax and smallpox threats almost two years ago,

Taylor said the hospital was inundated with calls and visits. For

SARS, she said she hasn’t received any inquiries from the public.

“There is a medium level of awareness -- people seem to be aware

of it but are not scared,” she said. “I don’t know if it is because

people think it is an Asian disease and aren’t expecting [to contract


Emerson said he feels relatively safe in Southern California

because of the unlikely chance he will catch the virus, coupled with

having excellent health care. But because of the outbreak, he

recently canceled a trip to China and Thailand he had planned to take

with his 10-year-old daughter, Sarah.