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Billings pharmacies blaming coronavirus for short supply of respiratory masks

Posted at 2:54 PM, Feb 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-24 16:54:23-05

Even with no confirmed coronavirus cases in Montana, local pharmacies are running out of disposable respirator masks.

The demand for the masks has led to shortages around the world, including in Billings, even though experts do not recommend masks for people well enough to protect themselves.

Juro's Pharmacy at 2043 Grand Ave. in Billings says some are looking for a specialty N-95 mask, and other pharmacies say people want masks to send to relatives in China or are taking a trip.

Juro's supplier has told the pharmacy it cannot purchase extra masks and has put orders on an allocation basis.

"We have a back order since mid-January for eight boxes of filters," said Stu Hannah, Juro's purchasing buyer. "And my rep from that vendor has already told me, you will not be getting that order. So it's going to be long term."

Juro's pharmacists use the masks when handling prescription drugs, and Hannah said the concern is a shortage would affect medical workers.

"If things do go south on us and it does start to spread, then the people who are at potential risk are going to be our health workers," said Hannah. "You're just going to expound the transmission rate if our health workers are the ones who start coming down with it. The people who are sick need to be wearing the masks, so they don't expose the health care workers."

The Centers for Disease Control recommends everyday measures to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases, which does not include masks for healthy people.

In Yellowstone County, the Unified Health Command, made up of RiverStone Health, St. Vincent Health Care and Billings Clinic, is assessing the supplies of masks and other personal protective equipment.

"To conserve supplies, masks are being reserved for patients who have coughs, colds, other respiratory symptoms, or are immunocompromised," said Barbara Schneeman, RiverStone vice president, communications and public affairs.

"The role of masks is for source control, and not to prevent exposure," she said.