Coronavirus fears drive shortages of respiratory masks, sanitizers

Sandra Levy
Senior Editor
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The spread of the deadly coronavirus in China to other countries, including the United States is leading to a shortage of masks, hand and surface sanitizers, and gloves at retail locations and pharmacies nationwide.

Americans are much more worried about the coronavirus than their local pharmacists, according to a national survey, conducted by the National Community Pharmacists Association. The survey was based on 124 responses sent to 8,000 pharmacy owners/managers Feb. 3-5.  

“The news coverage is clearly affecting consumer behavior,” said Brian Caswell, NCPA president and owner of Wolkar Pharmacy in Baxter Springs, Kan. “Pharmacists are divided on whether the coronavirus is a serious health threat, but a strong majority of their customers are highly concerned.”

Thirty-two percent of pharmacists surveyed say the coronavirus is a significant public health threat, according to the survey. Forty-two percent disagree, while 26% are unsure. Fifty-four percent of them say, however, that their patients are very worried.

Sixty-three percent of local pharmacists say their customers are buying surgical masks as a precaution, while a staggering 96% say they’re selling them faster than they can restock. Nearly 40% say they can’t get enough respirator masks. Many are reporting shortages of hand sanitizers, surface sanitizers, and gloves as well.

“Patients are on edge and they’re preparing,” said Caswell.

He pointed out that local pharmacists are the most accessible health care providers in most communities. In fact, pharmacies in many states now administer flu shots and other vaccinations thanks to recent changes in the law. They’re very well-positioned to do the same for coronavirus and other new infectious diseases when vaccines are developed.

Wall-to-wall news coverage of the coronavirus is causing concern among patients, and they’re rushing to buy items they hope will protect them and their families. Only a handful of cases have been reported here, compared to China and other parts of the world where thousands are infected.

“It’s wise to be prepared, but there’s no reason for Americans to panic,” said Caswell. “The flu kills tens of thousands of Americans every year. Only a handful of Americans have been diagnosed with coronavirus in this country and there are not yet any fatalities. Americans should remember to wash their hands frequently, avoid crowds if possible, and disinfect the things they touch. And if they have any questions, they should absolutely feel free to stop by the local pharmacy and talk to the pharmacist. That’s why we’re here.”

The run on masks isn't contained just to drug stores. DSN sister publication HBS Dealer reported this week that respiratory masks are disappearing from hardware retailer shelves, including Home Depot in New Jersey.

According to the HBS Dealer report, retailers say distributors have set maximum order limits on respiratory masks, and 3M says it is increasing global production of personal protective equipment products – including respirators – in response to the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Five-location Elliott's Hardware in Texas, eight-location Carr Hardware & Supply, retail members of  Do it Best in Ft. Wayne, Ind.,  and Chicago-based distributor True Value Company, also are seeing a run on similar protective items, the report said.