'They're needed for healthcare workers': Public health pleads for residents to stop buying N95 masks

This photo illustration taken on January 28, 2020 shows protective face masks in Bangkok. - Thailand has detected 14 cases so far of the novel coronavirus, a virus similar to the SARS pathogen, an outbreak which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan. (P (Getty Images)

Public health officials in Los Angeles County are asking the public to refrain from purchasing N95 respirator masks, so that medical professionals can have access to them.

"There's really no benefit at all for anybody in the public to need to go out and secure an N95 mask. They are in short supply, they're needed for healthcare workers desperately," Los Angeles County Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer pleaded on Wednesday.

"It's most important that all of our healthcare workers have the masks that they need to do their very best job, and be protected — so that they can protect us," she said. "If our healthcare workers do not have their personal protection equipment, it is impossible for them to do their jobs and that means it's impossible for the rest of us to be able to get the kind of healthcare we're gonna need if we should become ill."

Her plea came a day after county health officials reported that a healthcare worker died of COVID-19.

RELATED: Los Angeles County healthcare worker dies from COVID-19

The surge of coronavirus cases in the county and the state have resulted in a massive shortage of protective equipment for medical professionals. 

Health workers treating coronavirus patients have the greatest need for N95 respirator masks because they are battling on the frontlines of the disease and need adequate protection.

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The virus is believed to spread mostly through droplets from coughs or sneezes. Subsequently, health professionals have recommended that individuals keep at least 6-feet of distance between themselves and others, in addition to frequent hand-washing and not touching your face.

Since healthcare workers do procedures on COVID-19 individuals that can generate tinier particles, they need tight-fitting filtering masks, namely N95 respirator masks, in order to properly protect themselves. 

Ferrer recommended that non-medical professionals wear masks that are home-made, in order to protect the supply of N95 masks for healthcare workers. 

"This can be a scarf, a bandana or masks that are made out of pieces of fabric," Ferrer said. 

She said that by doing so, you will help reduce the number of droplets that come out of your mouth, that might contaminate others, even if you do not show any symptoms of COVID-19. 

This is essential in helping to slow the spread as more evidence is emerging that coronavirus infections are being spread by people who have no clear symptoms. On Wednesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed how it was defining risk of infection for Americans, saying anyone may be a considered a carrier, whether they have symptoms or not.

RELATED: Public health official urges residents not to substitute face masks for social distancing

"Wearing the mask is not a shield and doesn't replace our requests that you stay at home, that you always are practicing social distancing, that you're using hand washing as your major means to make sure you're not infecting yourself after touching something or someone who may be infected and that you're self-isolating and self-quarantining when it's appropriate," Ferrer said.

The Right Mask for the Task: Johns Hopkins University Guide 

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