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After Coronavirus Outbreak, Protective Masks Are In Short Supply

Prices for protective masks have surged as fears of coronavirus spread. Demand for masks has easily outpaced the current supply. The U.S. government is urging manufacturers to scale up production.

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Masks are starting to sell out all over the country as fears of a potential coronavirus pandemic spread. Searches for masks online, at local pharmacies and hardware stores are coming up short, and many of the merchants that still have masks are jacking up the prices. Planet Money’s Greg Rosalsky has this report.

GREG ROSALSKY, BYLINE: Last month, Daniel Tamasi (ph) decided he wanted to take some extra precautions against the coronavirus. He’s got a pregnant wife and a 2-year-old. He started searching for masks on Amazon, and he found that he would have to wait a month to get them.

DANIEL TAMASI: So I went to the online stores of basically every major pharmacy – CVS, Walgreens, Target and those sort of places, right? And they were all out of stock.

ROSALSKY: So Tamasi called and drove to stores around St. Louis, which is where he lives, still no luck. So he tried eBay.

TAMASI: You know, when I’m buying clothes, eBay is a good enough place for that, but for my medical needs, I never really thought about eBay as my go-to place.

ROSALSKY: So he searches for masks, and they were crazy expensive. The cheapest mask he could find on eBay were four times their standard sticker price.

TAMASI: I think I got 50 masks for 50 bucks. It’s not going to break the bank. It was like better play it safe than sorry.

ROSALSKY: Tamasi’s story is now the story of millions of people around the world. They’re scrambling for masks, and it’s hard to find them. And sellers, like, on eBay and Amazon have been jacking up prices. According to the online price tracker Keepa, a 30-pack of 3M’s popular N95 mask was selling on Amazon for $199.95 on Tuesday. Normally, it’s about 15 bucks. Even major American hospitals are reportedly running out of these masks. Here’s the George Mason economist Tyler Cowan.

TYLER COWEN: Well, the actual practical concern here is that health care professionals and hospitals need to get enough of the masks.

ROSALSKY: The U.S. Health and Human Services secretary, Alexander Azar, says the government wants to buy 300 million additional N95 masks to protect Americans. He’s urging domestic manufacturers to ramp up production. And that’s kind of the point. There’s not enough supply, and that’s the reason why prices are surging all over the place. And obviously, that’s not popular.

COWEN: Well, when human life possibly is at stake, I think the intuitions about fairness become sharper and stronger.

ROSALSKY: Amazon, for example, has a policy urging fair pricing. This week, it told some sellers of masks on its marketplace that they could be suspended if they jacked up their prices too much.

COWEN: Amazon doesn’t want people to resent it. Masks are a very small share of their overall business. But if people get upset at Amazon, the whole company could be worth less.

ROSALSKY: In other words, it’s in Amazon’s economic interest to not look too coldhearted. It has a reputation to protect. As for Daniel Tamasi, he paid $50 for a box of the wrong masks.

TAMASI: I later found out that these might not actually be super effective against coronavirus.

ROSALSKY: The CDC says on its website the most effective mask against coronavirus is the N95 or higher respirator mask. But at this moment, it’s recommending them only for health professionals. Greg Rosalsky, NPR News, New York.

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