Respirator masks are selling like hotcakes at medical supply and drug stores in Winnipeg, despite a warning from health officials that masks are unnecessary and could heighten public fear over the H1N1 influenza, formerly known as swine flu.
Even though no one in the province has been diagnosed with the flu, at least one medical supply outlet is advertising masks for sale on a large sign outside.
The respirator mask of choice is the N-95, the mask recommended by both the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Centers for Disease Control in the United States. It has the ability to filter out 95 per cent or more of certain airborne particles. It also meets CDC guidelines for tuberculosis exposure control.
Gerald Diamond, co-owner of Diamond Athletic Medical Supplies in the building housing the Pan Am Clinic, said the store has a self-imposed restriction on sales of particulate respirator masks to individuals because of the high demand.
"We've been selling bazillions of them," Diamond said Thursday.
"We're limiting how many you can take -- five boxes or so instead of a case." As the flu spread across the continent Saturday, staff checked to see how many masks they had in stock.
"By Monday we were out of them," Diamond said.
Manitoba's chief medical officer, Dr. Joel Kettner, said he's not recommending people wear masks, since they often wear them incorrectly and have a false sense of security that they're protected against flu. Kettner said Manitobans planning to walk around in masks in malls and schools could also heighten public anxiety about the new virus that's surfaced around the globe.
"Masks have to actually be working properly," Kettner said. "Some people might think they're protected and they're not.
"I don't think it's wise."
Public health officials across the country are discussing issues like whether or not the general public should wear masks during their daily communication briefings. So far, Kettner said, the consensus is it's inappropriate at this stage of the outbreak, and that the only people who should wear masks are those who may be infected with H1N1 flu and the health-care workers caring for them.
To date, no confirmed cases of the flu have been reported in Manitoba. Nine suspected cases all tested negative for the virus.
Diamond said they are getting more in, but the manufacturers have already warned they may become even more scarce in the coming days. Each box holds 100 masks.
"The manufacturers are on a pandemic level of awareness and they say they'll provide more content to us, but hospitals and professionals are first."
Diamond said it's similar to when masks flew off shelves during the 2003 SARS outbreak in Toronto.
"With SARS, it seemed so traumatic at the time and the outcomes were so negative people were panicking. But the outcome here doesn't seem as bad."
Sarah Tattersall, a spokeswoman for 3M Canada in London, Ont., said the company is seeing high demand for its N-95 respirator masks.
"We have increased global production," Tattersall said.
"We do expect the demand will outpace the supply as we go forward, so a lot of the supply is going to the most needed areas."
Medigas general manager Rai Arndt said most of the sales at the McPhillips Street outlet have been to health-care professionals.
"We haven't had that many private people," Arndt said, adding the business has sold 400 boxes of masks in recent days when "normally we would sell a box here and there."