World Health Organization video about using medical masks
Are masks a must? And if so, for whom? That question has prompted a social media debate about whether Larry Block, the local retailer and a candidate in the Nov. 3 City Council election, is doing good by ordering thousands of facial masks from China during the COVID-19 epidemic.
Block is best known as the owner of the Block Party gay apparel store and for his advocacy for improving crosswalk safety. He announced recently on his Facebook page that he has reached out to companies in China to acquire two types of masks: medical masks and N95 masks. The federal Food and Drug Administration defines a medical mask (aka surgical mask) as “a loose-fitting, disposable device that creates a physical barrier between the mouth and nose of the wearer and potential contaminants in the immediate environment … Note that the edges of the mask are not designed to form a seal around the nose and mouth.” An N95 mask is “a respiratory protective device designed to achieve a very close facial fit and very efficient filtration of airborne particles. Note that the edges of the respirator are designed to form a seal around the nose and mouth.” The FDA says such masks should not be shared with others or used more than once.
Block intends to distribute one mask free of charge to elderly West Hollywood residents, those living in affordable housing units, those who are disabled and have health problems like asthma and those who are homeless. (He began doing that over the weekend, driving around to deliver 100 samples .)
Block will sell the masks to others. As of last night he had taken orders for hundreds of them from individual residents and from an owner of local apartment buildings who wants to make them available to residents and building maintenance workers. Profits from the sales will go to WeHo Wish, a non-profit hat Block established to help West Hollywood residents in need. Block told WEHOville that he expects some of the masks to arrive from China in time for him to sell them from noon to 4 p.m. on Thursday and Friday outside the Block Party store, which has closed to comply with Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s coronavirus emergency ordinance. Thus far Block has ordered 6,000 masks, with orders for another 20,000 in process. He is selling medical masks in pack of ten for $15 and the N95 masks for $5 each.
Block said that one person who bought masks from him said he intended to drop them off at Plummer Park this morning, where City Council members John Heilman and Lindsey Horvath had asked residents to leave unused, new and packaged medical supplies that can be donated to hospitals.
Block has been critical of the City of West Hollywood for not buying masks for its residents. “I reached out to the Chamber of Commerce, various developers, City Council members and the City Manager begging them to pitch in to buy masks for our local residents in elevator buildings to contain the spread,” Block said. City Manager Paul Arevalo, who Block suggested buy 500,000 masks, “got back to me that there were no needs at that time, and he would call if needed,” Block said.
While Block has criticized local institutions for not buying the masks, he has been criticized for his decision to sell medical and N95 masks to ordinary residents while hospitals have declared a shortage of those masks for their health professionals. A story in the Los Angeles Times states that “federal officials have warned that the Strategic National Stockpile contains just 1% of the top-notch N95 respirators that experts predict may be needed throughout the pandemic.” Critics also have noted that organizations like the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Federal Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization don’t recommend that ordinary people use masks during the COVID-19 epidemic. They argue that they should only be used by those who are infected or who are caring for such people.
“CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19,” says the CDC’s website. “You should only wear a mask if a healthcare professional recommends it. A facemask should be used by people who have COVID-19 and are showing symptoms. This is to protect others from the risk of getting infected. The use of facemasks also is crucial for health workers and other people who are taking care of someone infected with COVID-19 in close settings (at home or in a health care facility).”
In an email message to Block (on which he copied members of the City Council) former WeHo resident Ty Geltmaker said: “Whatever your undoubtedly good intentions, it was wrong of you to secure medical supplies through private back channels without handing them over to responsible public health authorities.
“Also, posting a notice that your masks ‘are reserved for West Hollywood Residents’ is not just dangerously elitist, but is itself a peril to public health as such masks give the public a false sense of safety, allegedly protecting persons out and about from contagion, as they are really only useful out on the street as prophylaxis against transmission by the already infected, not a secure barrier to reception of airborne disease. However many of these masks you still have in stock should be taken immediately down the street to Cedars Sinai for proper use by medical professionals who desperately need them for their own protection in the confined treatment wards where such cross-transmission does happen.”
Block has argued that the masks he is buying from China have not been manufactured for U.S. hospitals, which more likely would want to purchase from suppliers such as 3M or Honeywell. White Label Connection, a company owned by Mykul Chretian, another West Hollywood resident, is helping him import then into the U.S.