CEDAR KNOLLS, N.J. — Many shoppers at the local Walmart had the same question on Friday morning: “Where do I find your hand sanitizer?”
The answer: Nowhere.
Employees at the Cedar Knolls store showed shopper after shopper shelves devoid of any hand sanitizer. When an employee found a lone small box of travel packs of Clorox disinfecting wipes high on a shelf, hands reached in, grabbing the packs, three or more at a time.
Asked when more hand sanitizers would be available, the employee shrugged.
A few miles away, at a CVS Health, an employee laughed softly when asked where the hand sanitizers were, pointing to a shelf where only five bottles of CVS’s private-label brand sat. Then a man grabbed one and made his way to the checkout line, reducing the stock to four.
As the coronavirus spreads and people clamor to protect themselves from getting sick, the United States, like other countries, is seeing high demand for items like masks and hand sanitizer.
Most health officials and disease specialists say one of the best preventive measures against the coronavirus or any other outbreak is frequent washing of hands, using soap and water to scrub fronts, backs and between fingers for at least 20 seconds.
If soap and water aren’t available, health professionals say, then hand sanitizer can be used, as long as it contains at least 60 percent alcohol and the gel is squirted onto the hands and rubbed briskly all over them for about 20 seconds.
In some cases, the demand is outstripping inventory.
On Amazon, for instance, a search for popular hand sanitizer brands like Purell, Germ-X or even Amazon’s private-label brand, Solimo, showed many were unavailable. In some cases, what was available was being sold by third-party sellers at high prices. On Friday morning, a pack of two 12-ounce bottles of Purell could be had from a third-party seller for $49.99.
Amazon did not respond to emails seeking comment about its supply of hand sanitizers and how it handles third-party sellers that may be price-gouging customers.
Walmart’s website also showed many hand sanitizers as out of stock. Those that were available appeared to be from other parties selling them at high prices. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
Gojo Industries, a small family-owned company in Akron, Ohio, that started making hand cleaners in the 1940s and invented Purell in 1988, has significantly increased production in recent weeks, according to Samantha Williams, a spokeswoman.
She added that the current levels of demand, while high, were comparable to past moments, like the SARS epidemic in 2002 and 2003 or even influenza outbreaks.
“We have added shifts and have team members working overtime — in accordance with our plans for situations like this,” she said in a statement.
Purell says its spray disinfectants, which are used for household cleaning and are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, have demonstrated effectiveness against “a strain of the human coronavirus.” But the Federal Drug Administration, which regulates hand sanitizers, sent a warning letter to Gojo in January, telling the company to stop making marketing claims that its hand sanitizers could prevent infections from things like the Ebola virus, norovirus and MRSA. The F.D.A. said those claims were not supported by “any adequate and well-controlled studies.”
Gojo’s website states that its hand sanitizers are 70 percent ethyl alcohol.
Bath & Body Works, the scented bath product chain owned by L Brands, said on an earnings call this week that it was seeing a surge in demand for hand sanitizer, which accounts for 5 percent of its business.
“It is presently growing at a very high rate for reasons we would all understand,” Stuart Burgdoerfer, the chief financial officer of L Brands, said.
Michael DeAngelis, a spokesman for CVS Health, said that demand was causing “temporary shortages” at some locations and that those stores were being restocked as quickly as possible.
He said the company was working with suppliers to meet customer demand, adding, “At this time, we have no purchase limit for these items.”