This story was produced by FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org), a nonprofit news organization based in Southern California that focuses on public health, consumer and environmental issues.
Americans are being told to limit public interactions during the coronavirus pandemic, and to stay at home as much as possible. They’re also being told not to denude grocery shelves by hoarding food and other essentials.
But have these messages at times been contradictory? If people are supposed to avoid venturing out in public, including shopping trips, doesn’t it make sense for them to limit trips by stocking up as much as they can?
“There is some dissonance in ‘don’t hoard’ versus ‘you’re going to be locked down for three weeks,’” said Dr. George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco.
“It came down so fast,” he said. “This wasn’t put together by a public relations firm, believe me.”
In recent weeks, public health officials and politicians have struggled to define how Americans should balance social distancing with shopping for essentials – and what constitutes a well-stocked pantry versus an overloaded one.
In a news conference Sunday, President Trump asked consumers to avoid hoarding, but gave no specific guidance on how much food or medicine people should consider having on hand.
“There’s no shortages. We have no shortages — other than people are buying anywhere from three to five times what they would normally buy,” Trump said.
In a post on its website, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that consumers have two-week supplies on hand. The Department of Homeland Security in February gave the same advice, but now says more vaguely that consumers should store ”additional” supplies.
In a statement this week, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Dr. Stephen M. Hahn, urged Americans to “only purchase enough food and essentials for the week ahead.”
So, with COVID-19 cases in the U.S. topping 9,300 by mid-week, along with at least 150 fatalities, what do consumers do in the face of seemingly conflicting messages?
“I think, in part, hoarding will happen regardless of messaging because it’s a way people are managing their fear reactions,” Rachael Piltch-Loeb, a preparedness fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in an email.
“But, messaging could definitely be improved too.”
Among the items commonly selling out nationwide are toilet paper, bleach, bread, milk and even some perishables like bananas, said Doug Baker, vice president for industry relations at the Food Marketing Institute based in Arlington, Va., which represents food retailers and producers.
“The supply chain now is working at over 100 percent of its normal capacity,” Baker said.
People stocking up “wouldn’t be a problem if they were only purchasing a week’s worth of inventory,” he said. The problem is that people are buying in quantities that “last them longer than 30 days.”
He said he didn’t think profiteering was a major motive; rather, that people are hoarding because “they’re worried that… they’re going to be asked to stay in their homes for a prolonged period,” and that stores will shut down–something he said absolutely will not happen.
”That’s part of the anxiety that they have that, ‘I’m not going to be able to get this in a couple of weeks so I better get it now.”’
At a Ralphs supermarket this week in Pasadena, California, customer Jeff Robeff weighed this dilemma as he left the store with bread and a few other items.
“The hoarding is really unfortunate,” he said. “I think it’s selfish…It’s the society we’ve created: ‘I win. I got the most toilet paper.’ ”
A fellow customer wearing a surgical mask, who would not give his name, said he has been going to as many as 15 stores a day to scavenge supplies for his family of seven. It was only 10:45 a.m., and ”today, I’m on my fifth store,” he said
Rutherford, the UC San Francisco epidemiologist, said the group most needing to strike the right balance between potential exposure and being adequately stocked, are people over 60.
Recently, he said, some retailers have instituted early shopping hours for older customers. “That’s a great idea,” Rutherford said.
“All you need is Trader Joe’s or Safeway to do it, then everybody else will do it,” he said.
Barring a nearby outlet offering early hours for seniors, Rutherford said the elderly can get a home delivery service, have their children fetch their supplies or go first thing in the morning and “get out as fast as [they] can.”
Rutherford’s colleague at UC San Francisco, Dr. Jeffrey Martin, said the message Americans need to understand is that their primary risk of infection comes from close social contacts – not periodic trips to the store.
“There are ways to go to a grocery store and avoid close contact with other humans to make it a very low-risk event for you to both acquire an infection and to transmit,” said Martin, a professor of epidemiology.
“If you are not close to other people and are simply breathing the air, that is not going to be a way to catch this virus,” he said.
His suggestions include shopping at less crowded times, wearing gloves, avoiding touching items and putting them back, and wiping down the shopping cart handle.
Dr. Lee W. Riley, a professor and head of the Division of Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, said that rather than hoard, people should follow their usual shopping routines. Keeping the shops less crowded is likely to ”decrease the chances of a viral transmission,” he said.
Dr. Peter Yellowlees, chief wellness officer for the University of California, Davis, health system, and a professor of psychiatry, said the message that isn’t getting out is that “we will get through this… and people are going to need to help each other, and one way to help each other is not to hoard large amounts so your neighbors have nothing.”
“This is about helping the community,” he said. “And you help the community if you don’t hoard.”