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Coronavirus depletes local retailer supply

Amid a national shortage, stores are having trouble stocking virus-defense products

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At MaMa Jean’s Natural Foods Market LLC on East Sunshine Street, the shelves are bare where customers would typically find hand sanitizers and immune system-strengthening supplements.

There’s even a note that says the manufacturer is out of stock of many of the products.

“Customers have literally come in and wiped us out,” said Chris Miller, MaMa Jean’s wellness department team member at the store. “People are really concerned about coronavirus. “I have never been hit so hard all day long by people looking for help.”

MaMa Jean’s co-owner Susie Farbin said she started to notice store inventory shrinking in late February, and since, store sales have increased 20% each week.

Farbin said she’s been ordering more items each week, but selections are running low at all four MaMa Jean’s stores.

“We get product and then it’s sold out within a few days,” she said. “Even our manufacturers have run out.”

It’s a nationwide shortage as retailers attempt to stock virus-defense products amid a global outbreak of the new coronavirus, known as COVID-19. The World Health Organization declared a pandemic on March 11. By press time, there were almost 125,000 reported cases in 118 countries and 4,613 deaths, according to WHO.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 1,215 U.S. cases across 42 states plus the District of Columbia as of March 12. Thirty-six deaths also had been reported by the CDC.

Missouri’s first confirmed case was announced March 7 in St. Louis County, and by press time, there were no cases in Greene County. Symptoms for the respiratory virus include fever, cough and shortness of breath, according to the CDC website.

Carrie Tennis, senior director of operations at Family Pharmacy, said the company’s 23 Missouri pharmacies have all been wiped out of hand sanitizers, face masks and latex gloves by coronavirus fears. Tennis said customers continue to call the stores to figure out when the pharmacies will restock the items.

It’s a similar story at Sunshine Health Mart Pharmacy, where pharmacist Natalie Foster said customers cleaned out the defense products two weeks ago.

“We’ve sold out of surgical masks completely, and we still get people asking about them,” Foster said. “We are constantly checking to see if there’s anything available from our suppliers, but there’s nothing … I honestly don’t know who all has them.”

Springfield-Greene County Health Department Director Clay Goddard announced in early March the formation of a COVID-19 task force during a media event. Goddard also addressed the face mask shortage.

“My partners who are emergency responders and clinicians, they need face masks. And this shortage is putting them at danger,” Goddard said. “We are not recommending that healthy people wear masks as a prevention tool.”

Foster said she doesn’t anticipate the pharmacy’s supplier, Louisiana-based Morris and Dickson Co. LLC, will be in stock of products anytime soon.

Foster also is dodging anxious customers who are requesting at least three months of prescriptions in case of nationwide drug shortages or the need to quarantine themselves. She declined to disclose the impact to sales.

At Grove Pharmacy, Director of Pharmacies Miguel Nunez said the three stores are sold out of surgical face masks and alcohol-based products. Store employees have to turn customers away.

“We have to route them to use the internet and check who has the supplies,” Nunez said.

Before press time, a search on Amazon for hand sanitizer generated a mix of products, such as a 1 gallon bottle of hand sanitizer for $70 or a 10-pack of Wet Ones brand antibacterial hand wipes for $74.

The few hand sanitizer products were either offered in cases of at least a dozen or were marked as unavailable. On eBay, single bottles of hand sanitizer in 8, 10 and 12-ounce bottles were averaging $40, plus shipping.

At the Walgreens at 2681 W. Republic Road, SBJ recently observed bare shelves that once stocked a variety of disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizers. A note on a nearby empty shelf notified customers the store would have more face masks by March 12.

Walgreens spokesman Phil Caruso declined to accommodate local store interviews but said in an emailed statement the company’s supply has been fluid.

“We are seeing some temporary shortages of select products in certain stores and continuing to work diligently with our supplier partners to best meet the needs of our customers,” he said. “We’re continuing to see greater demand … across our stores nationwide.”

Farbin said she’s telling store employees to discourage customers from hoarding the products.

“People call and want an entire case of something,” she said. “We don’t know how long this will continue, so we don’t want to sell a whole case to someone. But in our store … they have a right to buy what’s on the shelf.”

Coronavirus could force many people to stay in quarantine, and some say people may have to work from home. Retailers are starting to have conversations on what to do if that need arises.

“We are in health care, so we’re in a unique position. Most sick people come to us,” Tennis said.

“We’re actually going to be sending out a memo to our staff reminding them to practice good health and hygiene, and we’re going to ask sick customers to use the drive thru – not to alienate our customer but protect the rest of our customer base.”

Farbin said she hasn’t had a company conversation on what to do if the coronavirus were to break out in the Springfield area, but she plans on it.

“We’re reminding everyone to make sure every cash stand has hand sanitizer,” she said. “We’re going around and disinfecting the handles of coolers and freezers and trying to get ahead of it.”

Nunez said he’s contacted the CDC for basic guidelines for employers.

“Right now, we’re not requiring our employees to use masks, but in the event we are required to proceed with that,” Nunez said, “we do have the supplies. The CDC advised not to get into that panic mode yet.

“However, you need to be proactive and prepare yourself.”

SBJ is providing coronavirus coverage for free so that all readers have access. It is our desire to keep the business community informed of the most important news and guidance on the outbreak. Complete COVID-19 coverage can be accessed here.

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