clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

You should prepare for the coronavirus — but don’t buy more than you need

Grab a few extra items next time you grocery shop. Pick up your prescription ahead of time if you’re able. But don’t panic buy.

A man wearing a breathing mask shops for nonperishable groceries at Costco in Washington state.
Big-box retailers like Costco and Walmart are preparing for a surge in demand for staple foods and cleaning supplies.
Jovelle Tamayo/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Editor’s note, March 25: This article was last updated on March 3. For our recent coverage of the pandemic, including how to prepare, visit our guide to coronavirus.

When news of the novel coronavirus first took hold in the US, American shoppers went on the hunt for face masks and hand sanitizer, clearing the shelves of their local pharmacies and grocery stores. As the number of coronavirus cases in the US has grown, some worried customers are stocking up even further — on nonperishable food, bottled water, over-the-counter medication, and household necessities, from toilet paper and cleaning wipes to pet food and alcohol — in case they have to self-quarantine.

As of Monday, there were six deaths and 96 cases of Covid-19 in the United States. This news has alarmed many Americans; some have congregated on Facebook groups, Twitter threads, and online forums to discuss the best preparation and prevention methods for the potential of a nationwide outbreak. Residents in Hawaii and Minnesota were urged on by their state health departments to buy additional supplies, and big-box retailers and supermarkets are preparing for a surge in demand for staple foods and cleaning supplies.

A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 43 percent of people surveyed are concerned that they or a family member will contract the virus (the actual spread of the illness is hard to predict at this point), but nearly 70 percent of Americans think that US officials are doing enough to prevent the spread.

The majority of coronavirus cases are still in China, but as the virus spreads overseas — making it look more and more like a pandemic — the consensus among public health experts is for individuals to prepare, not panic. While preparation is a good thing, it doesn’t necessarily translate to hoarding a 90-day supply of food in your basement. Taking proper precautions can be “one of the most pro-social, altruistic things” you can do to benefit your loved ones and fellow community members, Zeynep Tufekci wrote in Scientific American.

As Vox’s Kelsey Piper wrote on preparing for Covid-19, “You don’t need to take major steps to survive without electricity or water (both should keep working just fine), but changing your habits and shopping patterns and planning ahead can protect you and others.” In short, preparation for a pandemic is a form of cooperation to reduce the overall risk for others in society.

And yet, people appear to be “preparing for the worst,” as one West Texas resident told USA Today. On social media, users have pointed to the school closures in Japan, city shutdowns in China, and viral photos of empty supermarket shelves in Italy and Australia (An Aussie virologist told the public to consider buying “a few extra things” and getting extra prescriptions “just in case”) as a reason to purchase what’s available in stores. In Milan, Italy, Bloomberg News reported that food staples like meat, bread, and pasta were in short supply after the local government imposed a city-wide shutdown, closing schools and museums, canceling sporting events, and imposing a curfew at bars.

There are varying opinions among health experts as to the extent of the preparation individuals should take on. The Department of Homeland Security recommends that Americans have a two-week supply of water and food before a pandemic, and generally have on hand basic health supplies and nonprescription drugs. Some experts suggest picking up refillable prescriptions ahead of time to reduce the burden on local pharmacies if the virus gets worse. Others think Americans should, for the most part, go about their daily lives as usual, and be mindful of getting a flu shot, washing their hands frequently, and staying home if they’re sick.

Timothy Brewer, an epidemiology professor at the University of California Los Angeles, stressed that the public should try to stay calm before rushing out to buy weeks of supplies they probably won’t need, comparing the sudden stockpiling to something that happens right before a snowstorm. Brewer’s advice to anyone concerned, he told me, is to follow basic disease prevention guidelines: washing your hands thoroughly and consistently, covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing, and staying home if you feel ill. “The steps that you take to prepare for a pandemic are exactly the same regardless of the type of virus, whether it’s the flu or coronavirus,” Brewer said.

Terri Gerstein, a Brooklyn resident, told Vox that she’s trying to be guided by reliable medical information in her preparation process, not fear. Gerstein, who said she plans to follow the guidance listed in Scientific American, considers herself a non-panicky person; still, she wants to be responsible, especially when it comes to caring for her older family members. (Elderly and sick people, in addition to medical workers, are at greater risk of being infected.)

“I’ve emailed with them about getting a decent supply of their needed medications, about 3-4 months worth, so that they will have access if there are disruptions in supply chains,” she wrote to Vox in a Twitter message. “I may go buy some extra Purell, Advil, and a couple of thermometers but no stockpiling of cans of beans or liters of water.” Gerstein added that she has no room for a huge stockpile of goods, considering how her family lives in a New York apartment.

Shoppers stockpile items in a supermarket in Milan, Italy, due to the coronavirus threat.
In Milan, Italy, food staples like meat, bread, and pasta were reportedly in short supply at local grocery stores.
Fabrizio Di Nucci/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiology professor at Harvard, told Vox’s Kelsey Piper that people should get ready “for the possibility that people will want to stay at home or be asked to stay home.” That means picking up a few extra food items or household necessities during your weekly grocery run, in case you can’t leave your house for a brief period of time. Health officials still maintain that the coronavirus risk for Americans is low, and the CDC said that healthy Americans shouldn’t need to stock up on supplies.

That hasn’t prevented some people from buying more than they need. Pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens and online sellers have seen an increased demand for face masks and respirators, which aren’t helpful in preventing the spread of coronavirus when worn by healthy people.

“The kind of things you should not be doing is going out and stocking up on face masks, gloves, and basically hunkering down for Armageddon,” Brewer said. “That’s not going to help you in any way.” Masks, even the N95 respirators, aren’t effective in protecting a healthy person from acquiring a respiratory virus, he added. Plus, Brewer said, “there’s no evidence” suggesting that gloves are helpful, since they can get contaminated like fingers, and people constantly touch their face and mouth regardless of gloves.

Basic medication, cleaning supplies, and hand sanitizers are reportedly selling out quickly at supermarkets like Costco and Walmart. Some shoppers are worried about a potential shortage in basic necessities (which could trigger price increases) since financial analysts have predicted a supply chain slowdown with items made in China. In Hawaii, where much of the state’s food and goods are imported, local news reports showed residents heading to big-box retailers to stockpile necessities.

Rose Mulet, a student at Arizona State University, recently bought 10 cases of bottled water, writing on Twitter: “Stockpiling water just in case the coronavirus gets really bad. Gonna stockpile on some food tomorrow.” Hundreds if not thousands of people appear to share the same mindset as Mulet, congregating on social media to share the essentials of what to buy.

Mulet told Vox in a Twitter message that she doesn’t see her actions as alarmist, but predictive of the coronavirus’s spread in the US. “Read what the CDC is saying, look at what’s happening to Italy,” she wrote. “It’s not a conspiracy theory; trusted individuals are saying that it’s only a matter of time before it gets really bad in the US as well.”

Mulet, who was asthmatic growing up, said she “can’t afford to put [her] immune system at risk” and would rather “be safe than dead,” adding that she’s not the only one on her campus mass-buying goods. She said the person who delivered her cases of water said some students at ASU were also buying some 40 to 50 cases apiece. “We want to stay ahead of the curve and make sure we have water to drink and food to eat,” Mulet concluded.

The last time the World Health Organization declared a pandemic was in 2009 for H1N1 influenza, the so-called swine flu that was first detected in Mexico. Should the novel coronavirus become a pandemic in the US, Brewer said officials could encourage social distancing, which may include closing down some schools and recommending people not to attend crowded events, like football games or concerts. That’s already happening in countries like Italy, Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia, where governments are taking a range of measures to prevent the virus’s spread.

While the CDC warned that school closures might be a possibility if the outbreak worsens, no US city was ordered to shut down (although schools did close) during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, Brewer said, meaning that Covid-19 has to get significantly worse to trigger that level of response. “There was nothing in the US to the extent of what Mexico did [to curb the spread of the swine flu in 2009] or what the Chinese government is doing in the Hubei province with Wuhan,” he said.

Regardless of where you are on the spectrum of worried-and-stocking-up, know that if the novel coronavirus does take a turn for the worse in the US, it won’t affect the population equally. The worst-case scenario for those who can afford to mass-purchase goods and take time off work looks significantly better than for those who can’t.

Sign up for The Goods’ newsletter. Twice a week, we’ll send you the best Goods stories exploring what we buy, why we buy it, and why it matters.