WILTON — Good luck trying to buy a facemask in Wilton. You won’t find them at Wilton Hardware, CVS, or Ring’s End, stores that usually carry them. “As soon as we get them in we sell them out,” said Tom Sato, owner of Wilton Hardware.

“We have no facemasks in stock,” said a clerk at CVS in Wilton. “It’s a matter of high demand and low supply.”

David Rohr, general manager of Ring’s End in Wilton said he also has noticed an uptick in the sales of facemasks in their painting supplies department.

Facemasks are flying off the shelves in light of recent governmental reports about COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus.

Purell is also a hot commodity in light of the virus news. Carl Dzienkiewicz, grocery manager of Village Market in Wilton said a customer recently bought an entire shelf of the instant hand sanitizer and then ordered an additional 150 bottles.

Worldwide, more than 81,000 cases of COVID-19 have been reported. More than 2,700 deaths have been attributed to it, mostly in China, where the virus originated.

President Trump, U.S. health officials and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont held news conferences this week, noting the seriousness of COVID-19.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a statement saying the virus is not currently spreading in the community in the United States, but urged caution.

“It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said.

There have been 60 cases of COVID-19 reported so far in the United States, with no deaths resulting from it.

Of those 60 cases, 42 were former passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, the site of a recent virus outbreak. Most of the other 15 were travelers coming back from China or their spouses. Three others were repatriated from China.

On Wednesday, Feb. 26, an additional case of COVID-19 was reported in California. The patient didn't travel anywhere known to have the virus, according to the CDC. And the patient wasn’t exposed to anyone known to be infected.

At a White House news conference, Trump said the U.S. is “very, very ready” for whatever the COVID-19 outbreak brings, and put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of coordinating efforts to handle it. Trump has requested $2.5 billion from Congress to fight the virus, while Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York countered with a proposal for $8.5 billion.

Connecticut responds

With a message of trying to “prepare,” rather than “scare,” officials in Connecticut are readying for an outbreak should it occur.

A news conference was held Feb. 26 by Gov. Ned Lamont and public health and emergency management officials to give an update on the state’s efforts to protect residents against the potential COVID-19 pandemic.

“Although we have no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Connecticut, we must be prepared for any situation and that is why we are continuing to take all necessary precautions to protect Connecticut from this dangerous virus,” Lamont said. “This is serious, and we are working with our healthcare system and schools to ensure that our efforts are coordinated and people are prepared.”

A number of precautions are being taken, Lamont said.

Among those precautions, COVID-19 has been added to the list of reportable diseases. All physicians in Connecticut are required to report new cases or patients under investigation to the state Department of Public Health. The state’s public health lab in Rocky Hill is slated to receive a kit from the CDC to test for the virus locally. Also, travelers returning to the state from China are being monitored for signs of the virus.

Wilton prepares

Locally, preparations are underway to deal with COVID-19 should it make its way here.

“The Wilton Health Department is staying ahead of the curve,” said Barry Bogle, Wilton’s director of health.

He said the department has initiated COVID-19 training sessions for teachers and school nurses on how to properly use personal protective equipment (PPE), in particular the N95 respirator/mask, which protects the wearer from liquid and airborne particles contaminating the face.

The department has completed one training session so far with school nurses at the Miller-Driscoll School. “We discussed PPE proper use of the N95 respirators, a need for facemask fit testing and when they should be used, as well as single-use masks, and the seasonal flu,” he said.

Bogle is putting together a more comprehensive training plan for town staffers, teachers, and remaining school nurses, which he hopes to have substantially completed by the end of the week.

That training plan will include facemask fit testing, proper hand-washing techniques, and how to use social distancing within the workplace while being considerate of the public’s perception of how the town and schools operate on a daily basis, he said.

“Our message is the same as that of the state. We want to ensure that the message that the public receives is the same regardless of the town in which one resides,” he said.

Virus and prevention

COVID-19 is a form of viral pneumonia and can cause coughing, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use.

Officials said the virus takes six days to show symptoms, is highly contagious and affects people differently.

There is currently no vaccine to prevent COVID-19. The CDC recommends taking everyday preventive actions to help prevent the spread of respiratory diseases:

 Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

 Stay home when you are sick.

 Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.

 Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.

 Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.

 If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.

Facemask use is questionable

When it comes to protection from contracting COVID-19, the use of facemasks may not be useful.

The CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from COVID-19.

“The virus is not spreading in the general community,” CDC director Nancy Messonnier said. “We don’t routinely recommend the use of facemasks by the public to prevent respiratory illness. And we certainly are not recommending that at this time for this new virus.”

But that isn’t stopping people from Wilton and around the country from buying facemasks at a breakneck pace, causing retailers to run out of supply.

That supply may not improve in the near future because most medical masks are made in China, which is having difficulty keeping up with global demand in light of COVID-19 issues within its own borders.

Sato of Wilton Hardware said some customers are anxious to buy any kind of facemask. If they can’t buy an N95 medical facemask and respirator, they are buying industrial dust masks designed for construction jobs that provide no protection against the virus.

“Some people buy whatever we have, they think they are better than nothing,” Sato said.

Where facemasks are useful is when they are worn by people who show symptoms of COVID-19 to help prevent the spread of the disease to others. “The use of facemasks is also crucial for health workers and people who are taking care of someone in close settings, at home or in a health care facility,” Messonnie said.

Stock market reacts

COVID-19 reports and fears of its spread in the U.S. have caused unrest in the stock market. Wall Street fell sharply on Thursday, Feb. 27, for the sixth straight day.

According to news reports, the stock market has entered into a “correction,” indicating a drop of 10 percent from the 52-week high.The Dow Jones Industrial Average, the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq all plunged on Thursday, making it the worst week for stocks since the financial crisis.

Demand is also reportedly up by consumers for travel insurance, as airlines are reporting thousands of canceled flights due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

pgay@wiltonbulletin.com