Korea to refresh supply of masks

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Korea to refresh supply of masks

The government will provide 3.5 million face masks per day to local consumers at pharmacies and post offices as early as Thursday afternoon, officials said Wednesday.

The announcement came during a task force meeting related to the coronavirus outbreak. Out of the total, 2.4 million units will be used to distribute 100 face masks each to 24,000 designated pharmacies across the country.

The rest of the 1.1 million units will be distributed to post offices and branches of the National Agricultural Cooperative Federation - not including the ones in Seoul and Gyeonggi.

The Ministry of Economy and Finance also decided to provide a further 500,000 face masks to medical institutions and will secure an extra five million units to be used in Daegu and North Gyeongsang, the two regions accounting for the lion’s share of confirmed cases of the virus.

There will be a limit of five face masks per person for purchase at designated sellers to ensure the additional volume is available to as many Koreans as possible, the ministry added.

Local demand for face masks skyrocketed after the government promised to secure supplies for local consumption amid the spreading coronavirus outbreak. Physicians were running short on face masks, and many Koreans were forced to buy masks at inflated prices, as the supply couldn’t meet the soaring demand.

The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety is immediately banning exports of face masks until the end of April as an emergency measure to control supplies, officials said during a press briefing Tuesday.

The ministry also announced it is requiring manufacturers to sell more than 50 percent of their daily production to public organizations like Korea Post, the National Agricultural Cooperative Federation, Hanaro Mart stores, state-run Gongyoung Shopping and the Small Businesses Distribution Center.

Masks have become increasingly scarce as confirmed coronavirus infections skyrocketed this month.

Public organizations designated by the government to sell face masks were flooded with calls for inquiries and visitors at their branches and websites Wednesday.

But face masks will not be available at the public organizations immediately, as the designated public organizations said they will be ready to hold sales by early March at the latest for some.

Face masks have also been less available to Koreans as large quantities of them have been exported to China, where the virus originated.

According to data from the Korea Customs Service, exports to China for the product category that includes face masks reached $61.35 million last month, more than a hundredfold increase from the $600,000 posted in December.

Exports during the first 20 days of February were already more than 200 times the amount for December, at $118.45 million.

As it became clear that a large number of face masks manufactured in Korea are being shipped off to China instead of being set aside for domestic use, the government has been under growing pressure to restrict exports of the products to ensure local supplies are adequate.

BY KO JUN-TAE [ko.juntae@joongang.co.kr]

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