American consumers awoke this week to the coronavirus threat and are beginning to display a symptom of the illness seen in Asia and Europe – hoarding.
Nothing in the United States yet resembles what Italy witnessed in recent days – where supermarket shelves were stripped bare and videos posted on social media showed consumers coming to blows over bags of pasta.
But there is unquestionably a growing sense of urgency for people to stock up on staples and to prepare for lengthy home quarantines.
“I’m buying some flu therapy and pain killers. If I wait until next week there may be nothing left,” said Dean McKnight, an engineer in Austin, Texas.
McKnight worked in Hong Kong and China during the SARS outbreak and knows first-hand the stresses that snowballing fears of a pandemic can cause, but said he is not panicked.
“We got an extra month’s worth of inhalers for my wife, but we’re not stocking up on medications or food as if we expect to need to secure several months of supplies right now.”
The coronavirus spread further globally on Friday. The latest World Health Organization figures indicate more than 82,000 people have been infected, with over 2,700 deaths in China and 57 deaths in 46 other countries.
There has been panic-purchasing of masks and other personal protective gear. But there is also a looming threat to retail across the board, analysts said.
Several major retailers, including Walmart and Target, stand to see supply chains badly hit by the coronavirus and that could result in some empty store shelves starting in April, Ed Kelly, an analyst at Wells Fargo Securities, wrote in a research note this month.
“We believe the time to start worrying about the supply chain risk of 2019-nCoV is here,” wrote Kelly. “It’s worth noting that big-box players like Target and Walmart could be the first to experience out of stock issues.”
‘Hard to Keep Up’
Stockpiling in states like Hawaii and Minnesota was spurred by messages from state health departments urging residents to buy supplies of non-perishable foods, prescription medications and sanitary supplies.
The advice contradicted the message from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), whose Director Robert Redfield on Thursday told a US congressional hearing that there was no need for healthy Americans to stock up on any supplies.
“We should have one unified message,” said Robyn Gershon, a clinical professor of epidemiology at New York University. “When there’s an absence of a good, strong and reassuring official voice, people will get more upset and start doing this magical thinking.”
On Friday in Honolulu, Hawaii, retired telecommunications worker Duane Tanouye, 62, waited in line outside a Costco with more than 200 other people.