What To Know About Food & Drug Shortages During The Coronavirus Pandemic

by Caroline Burke

If you've been to a pharmacy or grocery store in the last few weeks, then you've probably seen your fair share of empty shelves. Stores across the country have reported food and product shortages due to coronavirus. But in many cases, these coronavirus-related shortages have nothing to do with a supply chain issues, and everything to do with consumers hoarding products for psychological reasons. So, if you can't find a particular item, that doesn't mean you should buy a ton of it when you finally do locate it.

David Ropeik, an international consultant on risk perception and risk communication, explained to USA Today why people might feel an impulse to mass-purchase products during the coronavirus outbreak, even when there's no need to. "When we feel, 'Oh my God, there's a new boogeyman out there,' it comes with extra fear," he told the outlet. "When we don't understand something that leaves us feeling like we don't know everything we need to know to protect ourselves ... that equates to powerlessness, vulnerability."

With that said, experts insist you don't need to stockpile food, water, or other supplies for the coronavirus pandemic. Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiology professor at Harvard, told Vox that you should maybe buy a bit more than you would normally for your weekly grocery haul, but not much more than that. CDC Director Robert Redfield reiterated this advice, insisting that there's no need for healthy Americans to hoard anything. Similarly, the Department of Homeland Security suggests people have enough food and water to last them around two weeks.

From period products to food items, here's what you should know about current and potential shortages due to coronavirus:

Mask Shortages In Hospitals

As of March 23, hospitals around the country are rapidly running out of N95 respirator masks. As a result, countless medical employees are reusing the same masks day after day, The Washington Post reports, either finding ways to sterilize the masks on their own, or dropping them in bins for the hospital to mass-sterilize. While the CDC has officially condoned "limited re-use of face masks" in a pandemic situation such as this one, it also points out that "not all face masks can be re-used."

As manufacturing companies race to meet production demands for necessary medical supplies, the WHO has warned people and companies against stockpiling masks, since this shortage is "endangering health workers worldwide."

A March 3 news release from WHO reads in part:

"Healthcare workers rely on personal protective equipment to protect themselves and their patients from being infected and infecting others. But shortages are leaving doctors, nurses and other frontline workers dangerously ill-equipped to care for COVID-19 patients, due to limited access to supplies such as gloves, medical masks, respirators, goggles, face shields, gowns, and aprons."

If you purchased face masks before you realized you don't actually need them, you can donate them to your local hospital.

Sanitizer & Cleaning Product Shortages

If you're worried about not having enough disinfectant wipes, and you can't seem to find any at your local stores, you can rest assured that many of the manufacturers behind these products are located within the U.S. What's more, some of these companies have promised to continue pushing out more supplies ASAP, according to The Washington Post. For example, the company that makes Purell is based in Akron, Ohio, and told the outlet that it has “increased production significantly” in recent weeks. So if you can't find Purell at your closest grocery store, it might be worth checking a few other places, or coming back in several days after supplies are restocked.

Clorox, too, has manufacturing plants in the United States, and has assured consumers it's ramping up production. Once you do find those products, make sure to only take as much as you need, rather than buying everything that's available.

If you want to keep yourself safe in the meantime, you can wash your hands frequently (for at least 20 seconds each time), and consider making a homemade disinfectant mixture. The New York Times reminds you not to trust disinfectant recipes made solely or primarily of essential oils, and to make sure that any hand sanitizer you buy or make is comprised of at least 60% alcohol. This homemade hand sanitizer recipe by The Verge is a great option to try at home.

Food Shortages

It's possible that there will be shortages of certain food products in the coming months, though they're hard to predict right now. Doug Baker, vice president of industry relations at FMI (a food industry group that represents retailers, wholesalers, and manufacturers), told the Food and Environment Reporting Network, “Certainly, supply chain pressures will arise as new cases of the virus emerge, but the supply chain is resilient."

“Shoppers may witness some out-of-stocks in a store due to sales spikes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the supply chain is short that product," He continued in an emailed statement to the network. "Retailers have secondary inventory sources that they could tap and they are adept to do so.”

If you're wondering what types of food products are disappearing off the shelves, the simple answer is everything and anything, in some cases. People have posted photos to social media showing grocery stores like Trader Joe's virtually emptied, with others showing videos of employees working hard to restock these shelves constantly. Again, this doesn't necessarily stem from a supply chain problem, but rather higher demand and stockpiling. A Trader Joe's employee in Brooklyn told a writer for AMNY that a delivery comes daily to almost entirely restock the store.

Drug & Prescription Medicine Shortages

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, approximately 80% of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) come from China and India. Additionally, a large number of over-the-counter and generic drugs sold in the U.S. are totally made in China, including the following: antidepressants, HIV/AIDS medications, birth control pills, chemotherapy treatments, and medicines for Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, epilepsy, and Parkinson’s disease. The FDA has asked U.S. pharmaceutical producers to evaluate all of their supply chains and notify the agency if there are any anticipated disruptions.

As of March 13, the Department of Homeland Security suggests people "periodically check regular prescription drugs to ensure a continuous supply in your home." It doesn't provide an exact amount you should have stockpiled, but it does recommend a two-week supply of food and water, for reference.

Ideally, you should always keep an emergency supply of any type of necessary prescription, according to Peter Jacobson, from the University of Michigan School of Health. "People should not be caught short of having enough heart medication, diabetic medication — anything potentially life-saving that they need on a routine daily or weekly or monthly basis," he said to NPR on March 9. Jacobson suggests calling your pharmacist, who can advise how big your emergency supply should be, and can process that request for you.

Birth Control Shortages

It's possible that you won't be able to stockpile extra months of your birth control prescription because of supply shortages, the Guttmacher Institute warned in a March 11 press release. If your specific brand of oral contraception can't be found, your pharmacist should be able to prescribe you an equivalent brand.

Because states and insurance companies have varying policies on how many months of birth control can be prescribed at one time, you might run into some issues. You also will likely need to contact your doctor and request that they issue another prescription for more of your birth control, too. Your pharmacist should be able to tell you what you need to do to get a few extra months' worth, just in case.

Toilet Paper Shortages

Yes, there have been many reports of toilet paper shortages. This might just have to do with a recent mass effort to stockpile T.P., rather than any sort of actual supply chain issue, CNN reports. The news network reiterates that there's no real reason to hoard toilet paper. With that said, if you can't find much toilet paper around, it might inspire you to be a bit more economical with the supplies you have from now on.

If you can't find a certain item at the grocery store, like toilet paper, paper towels, or non-perishables, consider going to your store early the next morning. Several stores, including Trader Joes and Kroger, have shortened their daily hours so that employees have more time to clean and restock at the end of the day. This means you might have more luck early in the morning.

Period Product Shortages

Women across the country are reporting a shortage of menstrual products in-store, finding empty shelves where they usually get tampons, pads, and more. If you can't find any menstrual products where you live, it's possible that, like the toilet paper shortage, this is a product of psychology rather than a supply chain issue.

A spokesperson for Procter & Gamble, the company responsible for Tampax, told Business Insider on March 20 that employees were working overtime to provide more menstrual products in the coming weeks. "We are maximizing production and distribution capacity where possible to ensure we can get products to as many consumers as quickly as possible," they said. Tampax also has a locator option for its products, which allows you to see where they're in stock closest to you. Additionally, Cora, an organic tampon brand, offers menstrual product delivery to your door, with the first month free. As of March 23, most of its products are in stock.

And don't forget, plenty of menstrual cup brands are available on Amazon for delivery within days, if you need to fix the problem immediately. Menstrual cups are a great option in an instance like this one, because they can be reused again and again without any need for additional purchases.

Blood Donor Shortages

In a press release published on March 17, the American Red Cross stated concerns over an "unprecedented number of blood drive cancellations in response to the coronavirus outbreak." The organizations noted 2,700 cancellations to date, which translates to 86,000 fewer blood donations.

If you're willing and able, you can schedule an appointment to donate blood through the Red Cross Blood Services website or app.

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Bustle’s coverage of coronavirus here.