MOH to refresh stockpile of N95 masks

The Straits Times (27 June 2013) - WHILE the Ministry of Health (MOH) assured yesterday that it will refresh its stockpile of N95 masks, public hospitals are unlikely to continue selling them once their stocks run out.

Changi General Hospital, for instance, is no longer selling masks after they ran out at the weekend. Others such as National University Hospital and Khoo Teck Puat Hospital are likely to follow suit.

The Straits Times understands that the move is aimed at diverting the sales to retail outlets instead. Long queues had formed last week at many hospitals, causing chaos at some.

MOH has so far distributed 4.15 million masks to retailers as well as needy and vulnerable Singaporeans.

Meanwhile, retailers say the prices of masks have remained the same since the mad rush for them when the haze worsened last week, even though prices for the same mask may differ across retailers.

Some have dropped prices to make it more affordable for consumers, said retailers like NTUC Unity.

Retailers also carry different models of N95 masks, which are priced differently. The most commonly seen is the white 8210.

FairPrice and NTUC Unity both sell these for $2.25 each. NTUC Unity had reduced the price from $2.50 last Saturday. Guardian sells these for $2.50 each, down from $2.80 since Sunday, while Watsons now sells them at $2.80, down from $3.

The retailers also have other models of N95 masks, but while NTUC Unity sells them all at a flat rate of $2.25, Guardian sells the higher-end model at $3.90.

The models differ in design and packaging, but are the same in terms of their effectiveness in keeping out microscopic particles.

Sales of the N95 masks from Watsons, Guardian, Unity and Fairprice are limited to 10 pieces per person.

The mask's manufacturer, 3M Singapore, said on Monday that it has not increased prices to distributors and retailers. Its recommended retail prices for three N95 models range from $1.80 to $2.50 per piece. It added that these prices are conveyed to distributors and retailers, but the company is "not in a position to manage final retail prices or comment on final retail pricing".

Public hospitals here sell N95 masks at an average of $2.50 per piece. But last week, Tan Tock Seng Hospital came under fire from consumers who said its masks - at $60 for a box of 20 - were overpriced. It had to clarify that it has always sold them at that price. It has since apologised and lowered the price to $50.

Yesterday, MOH advised the public to buy masks from major supermarkets and pharmacies. It is also advising consumers to approach manufacturers or distributors if they have doubts about the authenticity of the mask.

"The N95 mask can be re-used as long as it is kept clean and its shape remains intact," said an MOH spokesman, adding that the average shelf life of N95 masks is three to five years.

Meanwhile, even as the haze abates, companies are continuing to distribute masks to staff.

Last Friday, printing company Fuji Xerox gave N95 masks to each of its 850 staff.

Maybank Singapore also provided its 1,600 employees, as well as its security and cleaning staff, with N95 masks on the same day.

Earlier this week, Singapore Press Holdings ordered more than 10,000 masks for all staff, including its newspaper vendors. It has started distributing masks to employees, as well as its delivery workers, security guards, dispatch riders and sales staff.

Additional reporting by Poon Chian Hui

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Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.