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Fear, anxiety and Champagne: How the Midpeninsula is preparing (or not) for coronavirus

Buying spree empties local stores of items not on list of CDC-recommended measures

A quiet anxiety grips Palo Alto and Mountain View as residents face the possibility that coronavirus will knock on their doors.

Since Friday, the Santa Clara County Public Health Department has identified seven more cases of the viral infection known as COVID-19 in the area. And as the number of cases climbs up, residents are scouring grocery and drug stores to prepare to hunker down in their homes in case there's an outbreak or infection.

Palo Alto resident Monica Hmelar has been searching several retail stores for hand sanitizer. On Monday, she stopped by the Costco store in Mountain View, but the warehouse had run out of everything she needed. One employee announced to customers that record numbers of people have been showing up as the store opens to grab basic necessities like toilet paper and water bottles. On Friday, 958 customers came through the store as it opened, the highest customer count in recent history, according to the employee.

"They told me to come back tomorrow at 9 a.m. when they'll have toilet paper," Hmelar, 52, said. "So I'm gonna be here at 9 a.m. to buy toilet paper."

None of Hmelar's family knows she's at Costco stockpiling for an outbreak — "They're probably thinking I'm crazy," she said — but the virus seems to loom dangerously close to them.

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Hmelar's youngest daughter is a senior at Palo Alto High School, where one student was sent home on Friday after the school district learned that the student's parent was exposed to the virus, prompting school administrators to disinfect the entire campus. (The parent also has a child who attends JLS Middle School and who was also sent home on Friday as a precaution.)

And Hmelar's oldest daughter had recently traveled to Florence, Italy, before jetting off to London after receiving alarming news about the increasing spread and death tolls from the virus. On the same day the school district announced a parent was exposed to the disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention raised Italy to a Warning Level 3, advising the public to "avoid all nonessential travels" to the country where the coronavirus has killed more than 50 people and resulted in about 2,000 confirmed cases.

"I'm kind of freaking out about the whole thing," she said. "And when I come to the stores it's not helping."

Retailers all over the Midpeninsula are rushing to restock shelves to meet the demands of anxious customers like Hmelar — such as hand sanitizers, masks and gloves — all of which have been flying off the shelves of local stores and online marketplaces. Many also have purchased freeze-dried goods and cough syrup.

"I ordered the masks," Hmelar said. "They're selling them on eBay for up to $1,000 dollars. I found some guy in South Carolina — a box of 10 for $100 dollars."

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U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams issued a public plea over the weekend asking people to stop stockpiling masks. The Feb. 29 post on Twitter reads: "Seriously people -- STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!"

The World Health Organization has information on how and when to use masks here.

Though masks and hand sanitizers are increasingly hard to purchase, stores around Palo Alto don't exactly look like they've been hit by an apocalypse. Most of their shelves are fully stocked and continue to be refilled as more shipments arrive.

But inside places such as the Mountain View Costco, the neighboring REI and Palo Alto's Whole Foods, as well as Town & Country Village's CVS Pharmacy and Trader Joe's, the unease of the community can be seen through the empty pockets of certain aisles that once stored rows of pasta sauces, canned tuna, toilet paper, freeze-dried mashed potatoes and zinc lozenges.

"It's just happening all in real time," said Michelle Kraus, a tech executive and political strategist who had just finished shopping at Whole Foods. "I don't know if I'm scared, but I'm uncomfortable. I'm the kind of person who needs information to decide what I can do."

To prepare for an outbreak, Kraus is stocking up on travel-sized hand sanitizers and zinc lozenges, an item that's out of stock in some stores. The lozenges became popular after a pathologist's letter that instructed people to "stock up now" went viral.

The CDC does not list zinc lozenges as a protection against coronavirus and there is no antiviral treatment currently available.

At Country Sun Natural Foods on California Avenue in Palo Alto, CEO Scott Otte also noticed his store was hit by an influx of concerned customers clearing out the inventory of pasta, rolled oats, disinfectant wipes and alcohol-free hand sanitizers. (The CDC only recommends the public use alcohol-based hand sanitizers if water and soap are not an immediate option.)

"We definitely got a run over the weekend," Otte said. "Our sales were about 20% higher than normal for a Sunday, and Sundays are already a busy day."

Otte chuckled with resignation as he thought about the prospect of closing his store — "a last ditch effort" that he would only consider if he's instructed to or if too many employees get sick.

"Sales have to be very, very low before it's not worth being open," he said. "There's rent and electricity to keep everything cold. Those are fixed costs regardless if we're open or not."

Abene Mendizabal, a Stanford University resident and mother of two, refuses to panic even as she works in the tourism industry, which has been directly affected by the virus through ensuing travel restrictions.

"I'm not doing anything, because I already went through so many health issues in my life — I need to keep calm," she said while outside of Whole Foods after a routine shopping trip. "That's why I bought Champagne."

Stanford Law professor Michelle Mello, who also teaches health research and policy, doesn't see the need for people to purchase tubs of hand sanitizer, but believes the best measure is for people to carefully listen to their local public health department.

"We have excellent local leadership, and what they're saying is that we should be ready for life to be disrupted for a little while," she said. "That's not the same as panicking, but it's sensible for families to have a plan in place. If they're asked to stay in their homes for a couple of weeks to rule out an infection, will they be able to do that? In the same way we prepare for earthquakes, we should prepare for this foreseeable risk."

To prevent further spreading of the virus, the county's Public Health Department recommends taking the same precautionary measures as one would against any viral flu or infection: wash your hands with soap; use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when hand-washing isn't available; cover your mouth with a tissue if coughing or sneezing and properly dispose of it; stay home if you're sick; and start preparing your household in case a family member gets sick and needs to be isolated.

To find more updates from the city of Palo Alto on coronavirus, visit cityofpaloalto.org.

Read our latest updates on local coronavirus cases here.

Related content:

Think you have coronavirus? Don't run to the hospital or urgent care

-

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Fear, anxiety and Champagne: How the Midpeninsula is preparing (or not) for coronavirus

Buying spree empties local stores of items not on list of CDC-recommended measures

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Tue, Mar 3, 2020, 11:00 am

A quiet anxiety grips Palo Alto and Mountain View as residents face the possibility that coronavirus will knock on their doors.

Since Friday, the Santa Clara County Public Health Department has identified seven more cases of the viral infection known as COVID-19 in the area. And as the number of cases climbs up, residents are scouring grocery and drug stores to prepare to hunker down in their homes in case there's an outbreak or infection.

Palo Alto resident Monica Hmelar has been searching several retail stores for hand sanitizer. On Monday, she stopped by the Costco store in Mountain View, but the warehouse had run out of everything she needed. One employee announced to customers that record numbers of people have been showing up as the store opens to grab basic necessities like toilet paper and water bottles. On Friday, 958 customers came through the store as it opened, the highest customer count in recent history, according to the employee.

"They told me to come back tomorrow at 9 a.m. when they'll have toilet paper," Hmelar, 52, said. "So I'm gonna be here at 9 a.m. to buy toilet paper."

None of Hmelar's family knows she's at Costco stockpiling for an outbreak — "They're probably thinking I'm crazy," she said — but the virus seems to loom dangerously close to them.

Hmelar's youngest daughter is a senior at Palo Alto High School, where one student was sent home on Friday after the school district learned that the student's parent was exposed to the virus, prompting school administrators to disinfect the entire campus. (The parent also has a child who attends JLS Middle School and who was also sent home on Friday as a precaution.)

And Hmelar's oldest daughter had recently traveled to Florence, Italy, before jetting off to London after receiving alarming news about the increasing spread and death tolls from the virus. On the same day the school district announced a parent was exposed to the disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention raised Italy to a Warning Level 3, advising the public to "avoid all nonessential travels" to the country where the coronavirus has killed more than 50 people and resulted in about 2,000 confirmed cases.

"I'm kind of freaking out about the whole thing," she said. "And when I come to the stores it's not helping."

Retailers all over the Midpeninsula are rushing to restock shelves to meet the demands of anxious customers like Hmelar — such as hand sanitizers, masks and gloves — all of which have been flying off the shelves of local stores and online marketplaces. Many also have purchased freeze-dried goods and cough syrup.

"I ordered the masks," Hmelar said. "They're selling them on eBay for up to $1,000 dollars. I found some guy in South Carolina — a box of 10 for $100 dollars."

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams issued a public plea over the weekend asking people to stop stockpiling masks. The Feb. 29 post on Twitter reads: "Seriously people -- STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!"

The World Health Organization has information on how and when to use masks here.

Though masks and hand sanitizers are increasingly hard to purchase, stores around Palo Alto don't exactly look like they've been hit by an apocalypse. Most of their shelves are fully stocked and continue to be refilled as more shipments arrive.

But inside places such as the Mountain View Costco, the neighboring REI and Palo Alto's Whole Foods, as well as Town & Country Village's CVS Pharmacy and Trader Joe's, the unease of the community can be seen through the empty pockets of certain aisles that once stored rows of pasta sauces, canned tuna, toilet paper, freeze-dried mashed potatoes and zinc lozenges.

"It's just happening all in real time," said Michelle Kraus, a tech executive and political strategist who had just finished shopping at Whole Foods. "I don't know if I'm scared, but I'm uncomfortable. I'm the kind of person who needs information to decide what I can do."

To prepare for an outbreak, Kraus is stocking up on travel-sized hand sanitizers and zinc lozenges, an item that's out of stock in some stores. The lozenges became popular after a pathologist's letter that instructed people to "stock up now" went viral.

The CDC does not list zinc lozenges as a protection against coronavirus and there is no antiviral treatment currently available.

At Country Sun Natural Foods on California Avenue in Palo Alto, CEO Scott Otte also noticed his store was hit by an influx of concerned customers clearing out the inventory of pasta, rolled oats, disinfectant wipes and alcohol-free hand sanitizers. (The CDC only recommends the public use alcohol-based hand sanitizers if water and soap are not an immediate option.)

"We definitely got a run over the weekend," Otte said. "Our sales were about 20% higher than normal for a Sunday, and Sundays are already a busy day."

Otte chuckled with resignation as he thought about the prospect of closing his store — "a last ditch effort" that he would only consider if he's instructed to or if too many employees get sick.

"Sales have to be very, very low before it's not worth being open," he said. "There's rent and electricity to keep everything cold. Those are fixed costs regardless if we're open or not."

Abene Mendizabal, a Stanford University resident and mother of two, refuses to panic even as she works in the tourism industry, which has been directly affected by the virus through ensuing travel restrictions.

"I'm not doing anything, because I already went through so many health issues in my life — I need to keep calm," she said while outside of Whole Foods after a routine shopping trip. "That's why I bought Champagne."

Stanford Law professor Michelle Mello, who also teaches health research and policy, doesn't see the need for people to purchase tubs of hand sanitizer, but believes the best measure is for people to carefully listen to their local public health department.

"We have excellent local leadership, and what they're saying is that we should be ready for life to be disrupted for a little while," she said. "That's not the same as panicking, but it's sensible for families to have a plan in place. If they're asked to stay in their homes for a couple of weeks to rule out an infection, will they be able to do that? In the same way we prepare for earthquakes, we should prepare for this foreseeable risk."

To prevent further spreading of the virus, the county's Public Health Department recommends taking the same precautionary measures as one would against any viral flu or infection: wash your hands with soap; use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when hand-washing isn't available; cover your mouth with a tissue if coughing or sneezing and properly dispose of it; stay home if you're sick; and start preparing your household in case a family member gets sick and needs to be isolated.

To find more updates from the city of Palo Alto on coronavirus, visit cityofpaloalto.org.

Read our latest updates on local coronavirus cases here.

Related content:

Think you have coronavirus? Don't run to the hospital or urgent care

-

Comments

Humble observer
Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Mar 3, 2020 at 2:50 pm
Humble observer, Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Mar 3, 2020 at 2:50 pm
4 people like this

"Palo Alto resident Monica Hmelar has been searching several retail stores for hand sanitizer."

Um, does Palo Alto Resident Monica Hmelar understand that the active ingredient in common "hand sanitizer" lotions is alcohol? And that germicidal alcohols are sold in other forms too at the same stores (possibly even more effective and less expensive, though less convenient), such as "rubbing" alcohol? Don't people learn about things like this any more?

In a pinch, high-proof potable spirits such as vodka or rum will also disinfect hands (though those products are far more expensive).

The article implies a stubborn search for one particular form of disinfectant alcohol, and doesn't indicate if she looked for any others -- stopped to think -- read any ingredients lists. (But then, it also reports a stubborn pursuit of face masks, despite quoted advice to the contrary from the Surgeon General.) Epidemiologists, for 10-20 years -- ever since SARS and H5N1 fears -- have urged people to have the masks at home, in advance, in case of epidemics exactly like this one. After the epidemic hits IS NOT THE TIME to go looking for face masks.


jennb
Whisman Station
on Mar 3, 2020 at 3:44 pm
jennb, Whisman Station
on Mar 3, 2020 at 3:44 pm
Like this comment

I thought I was all set for hand sanitizer with my cheap bottle of vodka, but the CDC is now advising 60% alcohol hand sanitizer, and vodka is only 40% alcohol. So now I'm in search of rubbing alcohol or something like Everclear -- we'll see what's on the shelves!


Sane Mountain View
Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Mar 3, 2020 at 6:25 pm
Sane Mountain View, Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Mar 3, 2020 at 6:25 pm
3 people like this

You DON'T NEED hand sanitizer at home. Leave it for people stocking public spaces or buses etc.

Hand sanitizer must be used to "wash" hands for 60 seconds to get the same effect as 20 seconds of hot soapy water in a regular bathroom. It's wasted at home. And we have limited supplies.

Same with masks.. leave those for health care workers and if YOU get sick. But you cannot stop yourself from getting anything by wearing one. You just prevent your coughs / sneezes from hitting others (mostly.. like 90% of the ill's emissions are caught in masks).

The main thing is to wash hands regularly in hot soapy water, particular EVERY time after a bathroom visit, but also elsewhere, and DON'T touch your face.

Also.. no need to stock up on water. As for electricity, solar things are also not an issue for COVID-19 for this particular emergency. Nice to get in prep for others.. but not this one. Instead order those online (slow delivery, not Prime -- which has a huge carbon footprint) for the next earthquake or flood or fire.

Stay home as much as you can, and work from home. Maybe Silicon Valley will find with this pandemic experience that people can work elsewhere, online and spread out, and we don't have to jam everyone into the edge of the coasts which is ridiculous.

And for sure stay home if you are sick, or a family member is sick.


Iso
another community
on Mar 4, 2020 at 8:32 am
Iso, another community
on Mar 4, 2020 at 8:32 am
Like this comment

Everclear is no longer sold in California. You can purchase it in Oregon.

Iso-Heet is 98.5% isopropyl alcohol. Still widely available. Web Link Don't get the Heet in the yellow bottle since that is methanol.


Humble observer
Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Mar 4, 2020 at 10:39 am
Humble observer, Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Mar 4, 2020 at 10:39 am
Like this comment

jennb: Alcohol is germicidal at any concentration, but less effectively outside the range 60% to 90%. A bigger issue is that it's more useful against bacteria than viruses -- to kill viruses, longer contact is needed -- hand washing is probably a better strategy as the other comment pointed out.

Iso: You're mistaken, Everclear [TM] is still sold here (I bought it in Mountain View a few months ago -- well before the COVID-19 outbreak), it's just limited to 120 proof (60% alcohol). Around the preferred germicidal range, but see preceding paragraph. (Original Everclear is 190 proof, 95% by volume, but the brand is bottled in weaker concentrations to accommodate regional laws reflecting dubious reasoning -- 120 proof, here. The absurdity of which is magnified when 151-proof rum is available in the same California beverage shops, a few shelves away.)

I'd bet rum, brandy, or other "brown" spirits are more effective improvised sanitizers than vodkas anyway (in an emergency, which is the only time you'd use such a costly alcohol source for this purpose), because they also include natural congeners such as acetaldehyde and ethyl acetate that are part of those spirits' more complex flavor, and contribute germicidal action of their own. Of course, avoid sweetened cordials like creme-de-menthe, which contain not only less alcohol usually, but lots of sugar -- they'd make a sticky mess.


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