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Trump’s new mask guidance could strain supply, test limits of market

WASHINGTON – The Trump administration’s expected new guidance that many people in the United States should start wearing face coverings when out in public is raising concern that it could cause a sudden run on masks.

Though some people already have begun acquiring or creating face masks on their own, the administration's new guidance could test the market's ability to accommodate a surge in demand. It was expected to be limited to people in areas of the country hit hard by the coronavirus, not nationwide, as some health experts had urged.

The new guidelines, announced Friday, will encourage people to use more rudimentary covering like T-shirts, bandannas and non-medical masks. And President Donald Trump himself suggested scarves could be a good alternative to masks.

Machinists concentrate as they work to sew scrubs for the NHS at the factory of Fashion Enter in London, as the country is in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, Friday, April 3, 2020. The company normally makes fashion garments for Asos, but the shortages within the NHS mean that they have put their fashion orders on hold whilst they make PPE (personal protective equipment) to protect workers against the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Machinists concentrate as they work to sew scrubs for the NHS at the factory of Fashion Enter in London, as the country is in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, Friday, April 3, 2020. The company normally makes fashion garments for Asos, but the shortages within the NHS mean that they have put their fashion orders on hold whilst they make PPE (personal protective equipment) to protect workers against the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

The new recommendations are set to be announced at a time when states are bracing for critical shortfalls like those that other parts of the world have experienced. They're scrambling to stockpile all manners of equipment.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Friday he would use his authority to seize ventilators and protective gear from private hospitals and companies that aren’t using them.

Trump, who foreshadowed the coming guidance at a White House briefing on Thursday, sought to minimize any burden by stressing the recommendations would not amount to requirements.

Nurses at Montefiore Medical Center Moses Division hold an "urgent community speak out" and press conference in front of the hospital, demanding N95s and other critical personal protective equipment to handle the COVID-19 outbreak, Thursday April 2, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Nurses at Montefiore Medical Center Moses Division hold an "urgent community speak out" and press conference in front of the hospital, demanding N95s and other critical personal protective equipment to handle the COVID-19 outbreak, Thursday April 2, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Medical masks, particularly N95 respirators, are in short supply and are to be left for those on the front lines of fighting the spread of the infection.

“If people wanted to use scarves — which they have, many people have them — they can. In many cases, the scarf is better, it's thicker," Trump said. “Depending on the material, it's thicker."

He said the recommendations would not be mandatory “because some people don't want to do that" and that “people can pretty much decide for themselves right now."

The administration has said states should have done more to stockpile medical supplies, but it's not clear if anyone is prepared for the rush that could ensue if everyone follows the White House guidance.

A nurse demonstrates outside the emergency entrance at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx borough of New York, Saturday, March 28, 2020, demanding more personal protective equipment for medical staff treating coronavirus patients. A member of the New York nursing community died earlier this week while treating coronavirus patients at another New York hospital. The city leads the nation in the number of COVID-19 cases, and the United States currently has the most cases in the world, according to the World Health Organization. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
A nurse demonstrates outside the emergency entrance at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx borough of New York, Saturday, March 28, 2020, demanding more personal protective equipment for medical staff treating coronavirus patients. A member of the New York nursing community died earlier this week while treating coronavirus patients at another New York hospital. The city leads the nation in the number of COVID-19 cases, and the United States currently has the most cases in the world, according to the World Health Organization. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

In rural Florida, Okeechobee Discount Drugs has been sold out of face masks for almost two weeks, and “we don’t know where you can find any masks at this point,” said Stacey Nelson, one of the pharmacy’s owners.

“It’s very hard to get these products, but people want them,” Nelson said. “They’ve been getting mixed messages and people aren’t sure if they should be wearing masks in our daily lives. It’s very confusing. Wear them, or don’t wear them?”

At the West Cocoa Pharmacy along Florida’s Space Coast, it’s been impossible to get any shipments of the N95 masks, said owner Dawn Butterfield.

Even the less protective “earloop” masks are out of stock. Whenever a customer comes in looking for a face mask, Butterfield said she recommends they contact two women in the area who are sewing cloth face masks out of T-shirts.

UT Health San Antonio holds drive for personal protective equipment to distribute to health care workers
UT Health San Antonio holds drive for personal protective equipment to distribute to health care workers

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

In fashioning the recommendations, the administration appears to be striving to balance political concerns about states that have not been as affected by the coronavirus and wanting to preserve as much normalcy as possible with public health concerns that some infections are being spread by people who seem to be healthy and this could infect areas that so far have been mostly spared.

SA company shifting gears from leather goods to face masks
SA company shifting gears from leather goods to face masks

Draft guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initially envisioned the new recommendations would apply to all Americans, not just those in hot-spot areas. But federal officials limited the recommendations to places with high rates of community spread.

The White House has faced pushback against rigorous social distancing guidelines from states with lesser rates of infection. For the hardest-hit areas, where social distancing has already been in place for some time, the White House coronavirus task force thought there would be less risk of people ignoring the other guidance if they covered their faces.

In this Sunday, March 22, 2020 photo, Bill Purdue, left, cuts pieces of fabric while Mike Rice sews them into face masks in Rice's autobody and upholstery shop in Washington, Ind. They will deliver the masks this week to Deaconess Health System in Evansville, Indiana, which asked community members to sew cloth masks for health care workers who may face a shortage amid the coronavirus pandemic. They're among legions of everyday Americans making face masks for desperate hospitals, nursing homes and homeless shelters that could run out of personal protective equipment.(photo courtesy of Robin Rice via AP)
In this Sunday, March 22, 2020 photo, Bill Purdue, left, cuts pieces of fabric while Mike Rice sews them into face masks in Rice's autobody and upholstery shop in Washington, Ind. They will deliver the masks this week to Deaconess Health System in Evansville, Indiana, which asked community members to sew cloth masks for health care workers who may face a shortage amid the coronavirus pandemic. They're among legions of everyday Americans making face masks for desperate hospitals, nursing homes and homeless shelters that could run out of personal protective equipment.(photo courtesy of Robin Rice via AP) (Robin Rice)

Dr. Deborah Birx, the task force coordinator, said Thursday she was concerned that people would be lulled into a false sense of security by covering their face, and wouldn’t abide by the more critical and effective measures to slow the spread of the virus: staying six feet apart, frequently washing their hands and refraining from touching their faces.

As with other public health guidance, the recommendation on face covering has been a moving target for the administration. Under the previous guidance, only the sick or those at high risk of complications from the respiratory illness were advised to wear masks.

Here is how to properly use face mask and gloves during coronavirus pandemic
Here is how to properly use face mask and gloves during coronavirus pandemic

Surgeon General Jerome Adams wrote on Twitter at the end of February that people should “STOP BUYING MASKS" and said they were not effective in protecting the general public.

On Monday, he noted that the World Health Organization does not recommend masks for healthy members of the population. Three days later, he tweeted that though there remains “scant" evidence that wearing a mask, especially improperly, can protect the wearer, “emerging data suggests facial coverings may prevent asymptomatic disease transmission to others."

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Schneider reported from Orlando, Florida. Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in Washington contributed to this report.