Monday, March 2, 2020 | 6:30 p.m.
Kellee Boag often goes to Costco in Henderson to stock up on essentials like toilet paper and cleaning supplies. The mother of five says the wholesale chain always has been a reliable source for everything she needs to keep her family fed and healthy.
She describes the store as having endless rolls of toilet paper and bags of rice stacked several times her height. But on a Costco-run over the weekend, she stumbled upon something she never imagined seeing — empty shelves. No toilet paper. No water. No disinfectant wipes.
Non-perishable food items and household supplies were mostly sold out at Las Vegas-area stores out of fears the coronavirus will spread to the valley. Nevada hasn’t had any reported cases of the coronavirus, the respiratory illness that originated in China and has killed 3,000 and infected 89,000. The virus has spread to more than 70 countries, touching every continent except Antarctica, to put residents across the globe on edge.
With that comes “panic buying” for supplies in the case of forced quarantines. The Department of Homeland Security recommends having a two-week supply of food and water in the case of a pandemic.
“(The virus) makes people anxious,” Boag said. “I’m not used to going to a store and seeing it completely wiped out.”
Rachel Stephens described a similar experience Sunday when she visited the Costco in Summerlin. The location was completely out of bottled water.
“Once people realized there was only the expensive alkaline and sparkling water available, panic seemed to set in as people began calling family on their phones,” she said. “I even saw women complaining to staff that they were upset because ‘this was the only reason (they) came to Costco.” Even the water vending machine was almost empty and the full water vending machine was out of order.”
Stephens said an employee told her there would be a water delivery the next morning, but to come early because they had sold out of their original stock within 30 minutes. Management at Costco and other local stores couldn’t comment. Interview requests to corporate offices went unanswered.
Stephens said she next visited the Sam’s Club in Centennial Centre, where she saw customers buying up all the non-perishable foods. At Winco in Henderson on Monday, wipes and soup were quickly going off the shelves. One customer had at least 100 cans of soup.
The purge is also coming to Amazon, with listings for items like face masks, hand sanitizers and disinfectant wipes “unavailable” on the online retail giant. The only items that are available are listed by third-party sellers at inflated prices. For instance, one 80-count package of Lysol disinfectant wipes is listed at $41.43, or nearly 10 times the normal retail price.
Target and Costco online indicates all sanitation products are sold out. The Kroger app limits hygiene products to five per order.
Clorox’s Chief Executive Benno Dorer told the Washington Post that the company is planning on ramping up its supply chain of disinfecting wipes to accommodate the higher demand. Until then, consumers are playing the waiting game — with all products.
“It was really sad because not only were people stocking up on water and toilet paper, but the really cheap, shelf-stable foods like short-grain rice, flour, SpaghettiOs, Chef Boyardee ravioli, Top Ramen and Spam were either sold out or nearly sold out,” Stephens said. “It’s sad because more expensive versions of some of those items were available, but people just can’t afford it.”
Stephens worries Las Vegas is a “ticking time bomb” in terms of an outbreak because it is an international city and tourist-based economy. She tried stocking up on medical gloves and masks as early as mid-January and found that many of those items were sold out as well.
“Elderly people who smoke plus casinos plus awful hygiene of people in buffets and casino games equals the perfect storm for coronavirus to hit. I hope I’m wrong,” she said.
The Psychology of panic
While Las Vegas health officials say the chances of a worst-case scenario in Las Vegas are still relatively low, UNLV psychologist Stephen Benning said that when it comes to the way humans are wired in evaluating risk, they’re going to be worried no matter what.
He said people tend to be “very sensitive” to information concerning a brand-new illness, more so than they would about things like vehicle fatalities, or even the annual flu, which are arguably bigger threats in the United States than the coronavirus.
Benning added that because some of the symptoms of the coronavirus mimic the common cold and flu such as coughing and fever, signs that may have seemed relatively innocuous before carry much more weight now.
“When people keep hearing about all the people getting sick, it focuses people on the bad and potentially unfloored consequences of just living in society,” he said. “Not even doing risky things, but living in society among other people is risky.”
Stocking up on emergency supplies isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Benning said, but collective panic can also go too far.
“These sorts of disasters or public health scares serve as beacons for us to do things we typically are supposed to do anyway, like disaster preparedness and having non-perishable foods,” he said. “However, people can take it to an extreme and rather than stocking up for a couple weeks, they’ll stock up for a couple months.”
That’s where psychological first-aid comes into play, a practice in reducing panic and distress following the immediate aftermath of a disaster or pandemic, Benning said. He advises media and health experts to put out factual information that does exist about the virus, and what people can do to combat it. He said because the fact that the virus is so new and there is no vaccine puts people in a helpless position.
“For instance, giving specific instructions on hand-washing will give people some sort of control that they can exert,” he said.