(The article has been updated with the latest figure from the NHIA )
Taipei, Feb. 6 (CNA) Over 1.4 million disposable surgical masks were sold on Thursday, when a new rationing system was rolled out as part of the Taiwan government's efforts to ensure a consistent supply amid fears of the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV).
The new system got off the ground at 9 a.m. Thursday, allowing Taiwanese and foreign nationals to buy two masks per week at drugstores and pharmacies on alternating days, based on the last digit of the ID number on their NHI card, Alien Resident Certificate (ARC) or entry permit.
As of 9 p.m., over 1.4 million face masks had been sold at the 6,000-plus National Health Insurance Administration (NHIA) contracted drugstores and pharmacies nationwide, according to the NHIA.
Speaking to reporters, NHIA head Lee Po-chang (李伯璋) said the sales went relatively smoothly on the first day, except for a few technical glitches with the computerized system, which were quickly resolved.
The biggest challenge was dealing with overload, as thousands of stores were simultaneously accessing the computerized system to verify the NHI cards, he said, adding that the situation will improve as the sellers become more familiar with the new system.
Once the customer's NHI card is verified, the actual sale of the masks, at a price of NT$5 (US$0.16) each, takes less than a minute, according to Lee.
Even before the sales began at 9 a.m. Thursday, long lines of customers were seen at almost every NHI-contracted drugstore around the country, and some stores had to issue numbers to help create an orderly process.
In the central city of Taichung , Chen Chin-huo (陳金火), head of the local pharmacy association, told CNA that his store had to triple its staff to handle the launch of the new mask rationing system.
On average, he said, each customer was being processed in about 1.5 minutes at his pharmacy.
In Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan, a man surnamed Shen (沈) happily displayed his purchase from a nearby pharmacy, telling CNA it was the first time in nearly two weeks he had been able to obtain disposable surgical face masks.
Shen said that although the new rationing system was somewhat inconvenient, he was not complaining because it guaranteed a consistent supply to consumers.
A Chinese spouse from Chongqing, however, complained that two masks per week is not enough and expressed hope that the government would relax the restrictions to allow more masks per purchase.
Under the new rationing system, each purchase is logged, based on the card presented by the buyer, which helps to ensure an equitable system, health officials said.
Each NHI-contracted drugstore is being allotted 200 adult masks and 50 children's masks per day, the NHI said.
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, masks will be sold to people whose ID numbers end with an odd digit, while on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays sales will be made to customers with even-digit last numbers on their ID, according to the NHIA.
On Sundays, anyone will be able to buy the masks, which are limited to two per person each week, the NHIA said.
However, Chiayi City Mayor Huang Min-hui (黃敏惠) has issued a call for the central government to allow people with special medical conditions to buy more than two disposable surgical masks per week.
In response, Health Minister Chen Shih-chung (陳時中) said the government will review the policy on a weekly basis and make any necessary adjustments, particularly regarding people with special medical needs.
On Feb. 3, the government discontinued a rationing system it had introduced earlier to allow the sale of three disposable surgical masks per person at convenience stores and other retailers.
Under that system, people had complained of long lines, quick depletion of stocks, and unavailability.
As of Thursday, the number of confirmed 2019-nCoV cases in Taiwan had reached 13, while the number worldwide has soared past 28,000, with 566 deaths, mostly in China, where the virus originated.