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Quik Pharm pharmacist Alana Bosland, right, uses the P2CV N95 respirator coronavirus mask as she attends to a customer at their branch on Frederick Street, Port-of-Spain, yesterday.

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There is a shortage of N-95 masks in the country, which puts doctors at risk should there be an outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

Confirming the shortage yesterday was Pharmacy Board of T&T president Andrew Rahaman, who told Guardian Media, “it looks like the country does not have”.

Guardian Media contacted one of the main distributors of the mask locally, 3M. However, no response was given as to the status of their product stock in the country or when they would be receiving more. Guardian Media, however, understands they are out of stock.

Calls to several pharmacies and hardwares around the country were also placed to find out if they had any in stock. Most companies said they were out while one hardware indicated they still had. Those without indicated they had been out of stock since the COVID-19 first gathered global attention in January. They attributed this shortage to increased public demand as well as issues in their supply due to the ongoing global supply issues brought on by the increased demand from the virus’ penetration into more countries.

However, this shortage now compromises the country’s ability to cope with an outbreak should it reach T&T. This is because a shortage means healthcare workers treating with patients would not be able to adequately protect themselves from the virus. General practitioners (GPs) are expected to be the hardest hit by this issue since they will deal with the majority of public cases as frontline responders to viral infections.

“The GPs are the first line of defence. GP’s and primary care practitioners—those are the gatekeepers into the healthcare system and these are the people who the patients first interact with, whether it’s in the private sector…or in the public health sector at the local health centre,” T&T Medical Association public relations officer Mohammed Rahman told Guardian Media in an interview yesterday.

Citing incidents where doctors treating patients in the virus’ epicentre in the Hubei province of China also contracted the virus and subsequently died, Rahman advised that “medical practitioners should not endanger themselves and put themselves in harm’s way by attending to patients without personal protective equipment.”

Contacted on the issue yesterday, however, Chief Medical Officer Dr Roshan Parasram assured that the Ministry of Health has a supply of masks available for healthcare workers in the public sector.

“We already have procured 25,000 about a month ago and we are due to receive another 25, hopefully, within the next couple of weeks,” Parasram told Guardian Media.

He added that the ministry also has a supply of other types of masks for healthcare workers who aren’t on the frontline.

Over the weekend, the US Surgeon General tweeted: “Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”

The World Health Organization (WHO) also explained in a question and answer video that masks should only be worn by those who are sick to prevent spreading the virus, not to prevent contracting it.

“WHO only recommends the use of masks in specific cases. If you have a cough, fever and difficulty breathing, you should wear a mask and seek medical care. If you do not have these symptoms, you do not have to wear masks because there is no evidence that they protect people who are not sick,” WHO infection prevention and control consultant Christine Francis said.