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Low Stock, High Prices for Coronavirus Supplies

photo of empty shelves

Editor's Note: For the latest updates on the 2020 coronavirus outbreak, see our news coverage.

March 6, 2020 -- Stefan Damian steered his shopping cart, filled with paper towels, toilet paper, and cleaning supplies, to the checkout of a Los Angeles Target store. He and girlfriend, Olga Antal, had hoped to find hand sanitizer, too. But this store, like many others across the country, was sold out Thursday.

As the number of coronavirus cases and deaths in the U.S. climb, public health officials are advising people to have enough food, water, and cleaning supplies to sit out a potential 14-day quarantine at home if they are exposed to the virus. Damian and Antal said they made their purchases to be prepared. "Just in case," Antal said. "You never know."

The advice to get ready has triggered a massive nationwide shopping trip, with shortages widespread and price gouging, especially online, becoming common. People are overbuying and hoarding some supplies like masks, which the CDC and others have repeatedly said are not needed for anyone who is well and should be reserved for medical professionals and others in real need. The hoarding can put those in true medical need of such supplies at risk, experts say. And it’s not clear when certain products, like hand sanitizer, will be back on store shelves.

Shortages are widespread, and as a result, some merchants are limiting purchases:

  • A clerk at a Rite-Aid in Burbank, CA, said the store was out of sanitizer. She had disinfectant wipes but was limiting each customer to three.
  • At the Target in Los Angeles where Damian and Antal shopped, a clerk said she had no idea when or if more sanitizer was arriving.
  • Indiana has had no reported cases of coronavirus, but an Indianapolis Star reporter who checked out four stores Thursday found all were sold out of hand sanitizer.
  • WCBS 880 Radio in New York dubbed the shopping frenzy that is leaving store shelves bare the "Purell Panic."
  • The website for grocer Kroger says: "Due to high demand and to support all customers, we will be limiting the number of Sanitization, Cold and Flu related products to 5 each per order."
  • At a Costco in Chino Hills, CA, east of Los Angeles, sheriff's deputies were called Thursday to calm down a crowd of customers who were unhappy and unruly because water, paper towels, and toilet paper were out of stock, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Online, supplies are often unavailable or prices are very high, a quick search done this week shows:

  • A search for hand sanitizers on the Home Depot website turned up 14 products, but none were in stock for delivery or in stores.
  • EBay entrepreneurs offer many listings, including six 8-ounce bottles of Purell hand sanitizer for the elevated price of $92.99 "or best offer."

Earlier this week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom called out price gougers, holding up a small bottle of hand sanitizer he says went for $17 online, a price much higher than normal. He criticized Amazon via Twitter after finding a 24-pack of 2-ounce sanitizer offered for $400. On Wednesday, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra issued a price gouging alert. During a declared state of emergency, which California is in, price gouging (defined as a fee that exceeds by more than 10% the price before the emergency) is illegal and punishable by a year in jail or up to a $10,000 fine

The Hoarding Hazard

Hoarding supplies to deal with the coronavirus has triggered outrage on social news platform Reddit. "If you are one of the people hoarding supplies due to the coronavirus, you are both annoying and ignorant," wrote a contributor named Anonymutts. The writer had just had surgery, with a need to clean and sanitize post-op drains. "If you hoard supplies, you are perpetuating unnecessary panic and you are a problem."

An infectious disease doctor agrees. "As we are facing a pandemic, hoarding is not the approach that people should be taking," says Amesh Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. "What people should plan for is possibly having about 2 weeks' supply of whatever they may need on hand in case there are disruptions to travel in their community.'' Hoarding can create supply problems, but also increase panic, he says.

For people like Andy Lipman of Atlanta, hoarding by others can endanger his health. He has cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that comes with persistent lung infections and breathing problems. He is a motivational speaker and author, heading the CF Warrior Project.

"Hoarding puts me in a tough situation if I have to travel," he says, as he always wears a mask when he flies. For years, he's been practicing the precautions now recommended to avoid coronavirus. "At the kids' pediatrician office, I wear a mask. I open the doorknob with my shirttail. If I don't know someone well and they want to say hello, usually I do the fist bump."

Companies Respond

Companies say they are trying desperately to keep up with demand. "We are working with our suppliers to meet customer demand for hand sanitizers and masks," says Joe Goode, a spokesperson for CVS Health. "This demand may cause temporary shortages of these products at some store locations, and we are resupplying those stores as quickly as possible," he says, though he gave no date for when supplies might be replenished. Goode couldn't say what percentage or numbers of CVS stores had shortages, or which locations are hardest hit, ''as the situation remains fluid."

The good news? He says CVS is ''not experiencing any significant shortage of disinfectant wipes and sprays at this time,” and there are no purchase limits.

On Thursday, Staples emailed customers, citing a spike in demand for cleaning and paper products as well as hand sanitizers, promising to mark items as out of stock on its website and to find alternative sources.

At GOJO Industries, the maker of Purell hand sanitizer, spokesperson Samantha Williams says in a statement that production has been stepped up, with shifts added and employees working overtime. But she gave no prediction on when the shortage would be over.

 

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on March 06, 2020

Sources

Stefan Damian, Los Angeles.

Olga Antal, Los Angeles.

Joe Goode, spokesperson, CVS Health.

Statement, Samantha Williams, GOJO Industries.

Amesh Adalja, MD, senior scholar, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Baltimore.  

Andy Lipman, motivational speaker and author, CF Warrior Project, Atlanta.

Reddit: Anonymutts, March 5, 2020.

Email, Staples, March 5, 2020.

Indianapolis Star: "Sold out of hand sanitizer, no refillable Starbucks cups: Coronavirus shopping in Indiana," March 5, 2020.

WCBS 880 Radio: "Purell Panic: Hand Sanitizer Shortage Prompts Many To Make Their Own," March 4, 2020.

Los Angeles Times: "Deputies called after angry Costco customers balk at shortages of water, toilet paper," March 5, 2020.

News release, California Department of Justice, March 4, 2020.

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