SAN DIEGO — Surgical masks and respirators are flying off the shelves at stores across the country as people prepare for a possible COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.

Still, experts said a mask may not protect you, and advice to watch out for price gouging and online rip-offs.

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“This is where we keep the masks and as you can see they're just totally wiped out,” said George Walsh, owner of medical supply store in El Paso, Texas.

It's the same story all over. Even Amazon is sold out.

“People are in a panic mode. They come in here and you can see it in their face. We've already stocked these shelves twice today.” said Terry Rigsbee, a medical store owner in Durham, North Carolina.

News 8 checked hardware and paint stores in Kearny Mesa looking for N95 rated respirators, which can protect against viruses.  

Only two could be found.

Boxes of 20 or 30 masks were sold out. Store managers said people were buying them up in hopes of reselling them to make a profit.

Amazon reportedly has put out an alert to online merchants warning them about price gouging customers during a public health emergency.

While folks can still find surgical masks for sale, those flimsy ones may not protect you.

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“If someone was just next to you breathing and they actually had the flu or had the coronavirus or had another kind of virus, those are really small particles and this (surgical mask) would not protect against that because they would get into the sides,” said Laura Landrum, a pharmacist in Austin, Texas.

N95 respirators are needed by health care workers in close proximity to infected patients. The respirators have to be fitted properly, according to Alex Azar, the US Secretary of Health and Human Services.

“It's an element in our armamentarium, mostly for healthcare workers. And that's the N95 mask that's actually fitted. It has to be carefully fitted. And it can protect the worker,” said Secretary Azar during testimony this week in Washington, DC.

As it stands now, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention is not recommending masks for use by the general public in the United States.

“Just you and me wearing these masks can actually sometimes be more harmful to you than not wearing a mask because if it's not fitted right. You're going to fumble with it. You’re going to be touching you face, which is the number one way you’re going to get disease is unclean hands touching your face,” said Azar.

Instead, experts recommend common-sense measures that can protect the public from viruses, in general.

“Basic public health hygiene, washing hands for an extended time with soap and water, not touching your face, coughing into your elbow,” said Azar.