Public health experts say masks and face coverings are one of the easiest and most important measures the public can take to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus. But, during the early days of the pandemic, they were hard to come by — even for some hospitals that needed them for their front-line workers.

Since then, many government agencies, healthcare organizations, elected officials and community groups have held free mask distributions to get more into the hands of the general public, especially with the recent spikes in case numbers following the state's shift into Phase 2 reopening.

With a statewide mask mandate now in effect, and with more national retail chains requiring customers to wear masks, pharmacies are seeing customer demand for masks return to where it was at the start of the pandemic.

That's part of the reason the Ochsner Health network recently mailed 100,000 complimentary cloth masks to both their pediatric and adult patients as part of its "Masks On" campaign. And more retail outlets and grocery stores are now selling cloth masks, often in an array of colors and designs to match personal preferences and tastes. 

"It's becoming more accepted," said Dr. Robert Hart, chief medical officer for Ochsner Health. "I think it's part of people beginning to realize this is going to be a part of what we're going to be wearing at least until summer 2021."

Doctors and scientists have said masks and face coverings prevent spread of the virus when people are in close proximity to each other. And Hart noted recent studies suggest that 40% of the people who have the virus may not show any symptoms, which means they could be unwittingly spreading the virus.

"We know they work and we can have more people getting out and doing more things if they wear masks," Hart said. 

Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome passed out free masks last week but has no immediate plans to distribute more at this time. 

"We usually know when people in the community need them," said Broome's spokesman Mark Armstrong. "It gets back to us, usually through the faith-based community. We're really focused on getting them in the hands of our vulnerable populations and people who don't want to go out, or can't, to buy masks."

St. Vincent de Paul President and CEO Michael Acaldo said the faith-based organization has its own mask campaign that has allowed it to hand out hundreds of donated masks to the population of families and individuals who stay and frequent their two shelters near downtown Baton Rouge. 

"We're doing the best we can to get as many as we can out," Acaldo said. 

CVS Health is working with its suppliers to meet customer demand, which officials said has never quite tapered off even when virus numbers decreased for a short period of time. 

"This will continue for as long as necessary to ensure customers get the products they need," Matt Blanchette, a CVS spokesperson, said in a prepared statement. "Currently CVS is selling disposable and fabric ‘fashion’ masks in its Louisiana stores and nationwide."

"We are not currently selling our normally carried surgical masks in our stores due to world-wide product availability shortages, but are working with our suppliers to meet demand and aim to begin selling again in the coming weeks," he added. 

Kyle Palmer, part owner of Parker's Pharmacy on Florida Boulevard, expressed similar challenges with keeping masks in stock at their store. Palmer said the need is still there. 

"It's a hit or miss when it comes to finding them," Palmer said. "Every day we're calling around to different suppliers asking for masks. Production has increased but at the same time more people are purchasing them so we have to check our supplies daily." 


Email Terry Jones at tjones@theadvocate.com