WINCHESTER — Before the coronavirus was declared a pandemic a year ago, the N-95 and surgical masks at Rotz Pharmacy mostly gathered dust.
Customers who bought them primarily were using them to breathe properly while cleaning out their attics or basements or mowing their lawns, according to Rotz co-owner Jason Rotz. But within days of the declaration, masks sold out at Rotz and around the nation and were nearly impossible to find. With store shelves bare and the Strategic National Stockpile quickly depleted, people locally and nationally began sewing cloth masks for medical personnel and individuals. Rotz remembers struggling to find mask suppliers.
Besides keeping staff safe, Rotz said the assisted living facilities and nursing homes the pharmacy supplies were desperate for personal protective equipment. At one point, the pharmacy began making its own hand sanitizer.
“It’s been such a whirlwind. We were unable to get masks and hand sanitizers. They just all sold out,” Rotz said. “We were really scrambling.”
By October, Rotz was able to regularly get masks, but they remain pricey due to high demand. Pre-pandemic, a pack of 50 surgical masks at Rotz cost about $10. They now cost about $20 per pack. N-95 masks cost about $2 before the pandemic, but now cost about $5 or $6. With N-95 masks still hard to find, Rotz began selling K-N95 masks, the Chinese alternative. The K-95s aren’t as effective as N-95s but are more effective than surgical masks. They cost $4 per mask.
While N-95s remain scarce, cloth, KN95 and surgical masks are back on store shelves. And the Biden administration is shipping free masks to people who may not be able to afford them.
In a Feb. 24 news release, the White House announced it would deliver 25 million free cloth masks to approximately 1,300 community health centers as well as 60,000 food pantries between this month and May. The masks, which are made in the U.S., will go to between 12 million and 15 million Americans with each person getting two masks. The release noted about two-thirds of the people served by the centers live in poverty and about 1.4 million are homeless.
Until they ran out last week, there were a pile of free cloth masks in the lobby of the Sinclair Health Clinic for clients. Masks were also available at different locations around the clinic. “My general mantra is one to wear, one to wash and one to lose,” joked Katrina R. McClure, clinic executive director.
McClure said the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided 10,000 masks to the clinic in December and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management delivered another 40,000 in January. Another shipment of up to 20,000 masks will be sent to the clinic soon from the National Association of Free & Charitable Clinics which received them from the federal government.
Besides making them available at the clinic, Sinclair has distributed masks to area food pantries and nonprofit groups assisting needy children and families. They include Bright Futures-Winchester/Frederick County, Congregational Community Action Project (CCAP), FISH of Clarke County, Froggy’s Closet and Healthy Families Northern Shenandoah Valley.
McClure said clients appreciate the masks and they’re reducing the spread of the virus. It has killed over 10,000 people in Virginia including approximately 400 in the Lord Fairfax Health District, which encompasses Winchester as well as Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah and Warren counties.
McClure said a study published in July by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention demonstrated the effectiveness of masks. The study found that two hair salon stylists in Springfield, Missouri, worked on 139 customers before the stylists realized they had COVID-19. But the stylists wore masks while working and none of the customers were infected. “I wish that study would’ve gotten out more so people would stop not trusting that masks work when worn correctly,” McClure said.