Fears that the coronavirus might result in extended states of quarantine have prompted Americans to stock their homes with a wide variety of supplies. While it’s never a bad idea to be prepared, the sense of panic has many people purchasing things in bulk that they likely won’t need. "The more we are told to stop stocking up, the more we seem to think about stocking up," Jennie Vry Liu, executive director at the Yale Center for Customer Insights, tells Mic. "Experts telling us not to panic makes the idea of panic salient and seeing that something is out of stock or difficult to find can trigger thoughts about scarcity."
The problem, though, is that when people overbuy out of a sense of panic, it can lead to real shortages for those who might actually need the items. If you're planning to stock your pantry in the coming days in anticipation of being holed up for an extended period, this is what people are stocking up on and here's the truth about whether they actually should.
Face masks have become a popular purchase made by consumers in the United States in recent weeks. According to data provided to Mic by merchandising software provider Bloomreach, sales of face masks increased by more than 590 percent during the final week of February. Many have picked up the product thinking that it will help protect them from the virus as they go about their days. But while masks can be useful tools to limit exposure to some airborne diseases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the U.S. surgeon general have all noted that face masks are not terribly effective in stopping the spread of coronavirus.
There are a multitude of reasons for this stance. The first of which is the simple fact that most people are not directly exposed to the virus. The CDC's top recommendations for preventing the spread of coronavirus is to avoid close contact with people by maintaining a six-foot boundary, avoid crowded areas, and wash your hands regularly. The agency does not mention the need for masks in its explanation of how to prevent the spread of the virus.
Another issue with the rush to buy masks: many people are purchasing the wrong ones. The most common type of mask found at grocery stores, pharmacies, and online are surgical masks. These are typically approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and are meant to protect against large droplets and splashes of fluids, according to guidelines published by the CDC. These types of masks are loose-fitting and not designed to prevent a person from inhaling small airborne particles. To keep airborne diseases out, masks known as N95 respirators are recommended. While these types of masks are sold to the public as well, they are meant to be fit-tested before being worn, and aren’t intended for long-term use.
But despite the recommendations from experts, many are still stocking up on face masks, creating a shortage that is causing problems for frontline healthcare workers around the world. So before you go running off to buy a case of hospital masks, consider leaving them for the people who need them most.
Hand sanitizers, like face masks, have seen a massive spike in sales in the weeks since coronavirus entered the public consciousness. Bloomreach told Mic that hand sanitizer sales have spiked by 420 percent in recent weeks. This has led to significant shortages in the availability of the product, resulting in price gouging — particularly on online marketplaces like eBay and Amazon. Though Amazon has tried to curb price gouging as best it can, the online retailer is having a hard time keeping up with all the attempts to profit off the crisis. The situation has even led to the state of New York creating its own hand sanitizer made using prison labor that it will supply to schools, nonprofits, and government agencies.
But, much like face masks, hand sanitizer is not a necessity in fighting the spread of coronavirus. In fact, the CDC recommends that all people wash their hands with soap and water as a primary defense mechanism, and suggests hand sanitizer that is at least 60 percent alcohol as an acceptable alternative if soap and water are not available. Researchers have also found that most people use an insufficient amount of hand sanitizer. According to the American Council on Science and Health, about 3mL of hand sanitizer, applied for 15 to 20 seconds, is needed to adequately clean a person's hand. It's not a bad idea to have hand sanitizer for cleaning up while on the go, and it is an acceptable alternative when soap and water aren't available, but it is not a primary need when defending against coronavirus.
Canned foods and bottled water
Non-perishable foods have been flying off the shelves as people prepare for the possibility of quarantine. According to Bloomreach, sales of canned goods like soups and beans increased by 183 percent in the last week of February. Likewise, sales of bottled water jumped by 78 percent. These goods are actually worth stocking up on, as the Department of Homeland Security recommends all households maintain at least a two-week supply of water and food in preparation for a pandemic. Fittingly, the recommended quarantine time for those who believe they may have been exposed to coronavirus is 14 days, so having enough goods to cover that period of isolation is a sensible idea.
However, taking these preparations to an extreme and purchasing well beyond your needs can put others at risk. It's fine to stock up for a couple of weeks, but it's unnecessary to hoard goods you’re unlikely to go through. It leaves others unable to stock their own pantries and takes away resources that might otherwise go to underserved communities. A number of food banks across the United States are experiencing severe shortages, and restocking these services is challenging in the time of a potential pandemic. Food banks are important suppliers of foods and essential goods for many Americans, and some are actively providing preparation kits for low-income households that may find themselves in need of quarantine. So if you have some cans to give, consider donating that or cash to organizations in your area so they can keep their shelves stocked for more vulnerable populations.
Toilet paper is also having something of a moment due to the spread of coronavirus. Sales have skyrocketed so much that it's become a meme, particularly in Australia, where people have taken to stockpiling it. Retailers across North America have placed limits on the number of toilet paper rolls a person can buy to prevent a run on the product. But there's really no need to stock up this way.
Toilet paper is not considered an essential item for pandemic preparation, according to the Department of Homeland Security — presumably because it can be suitably replaced by other items in worst-case scenarios. Everything from newspapers and magazines to old rags or wet wipes are all considered viable alternatives in a pinch. It's also not really necessary to massively stock up on the product when most people don't go through toilet paper very quickly. It is estimated that the average multi-person household goes through a roll about every five days, so three rolls should last most people about two weeks. "In general, consumers don’t have a good sense of their own consumption levels such as how much toilet paper or bottled water they use in a given period of time" Liu says. "As such, consumers respond by looking to others to determine what amount is appropriate. Seeing others stockpiling can serve as social proof to help justify excessive purchases."
The bottom line is that there's no reason the coronavirus should lead to a shortage of goods like toilet paper or any of the other stuff mentioned here, but unnecessary panic-purchasing can produce that result, even if the virus itself has no effect on the supply. Instead of stockpiling massive amounts of goods, most people are better served by following the basic guidelines laid out by experts: get enough to survive a quarantine of two weeks. Beyond that, your purchases may give you more peace of mind but may also be putting others at risk. Also, you might wind up with a kitchen cabinet full of Spaghetti-Os you’ll never use.