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As coronavirus concern mounts, hand sanitizer runs scarce in Anchorage

Hand sanitizer is temporarily unavailable at Fred Meyer on Dimond Boulevard on March 4, 2020. (Anne Raup / ADN)

If you are looking to purchase a humble bottle of hand sanitizer in Anchorage right now, you are probably out of luck.

At the Midtown Walmart on Wednesday, barren shelves greeted Purell seekers. Employees were apologetic about the vast emptiness in the “Disinfectant Wipes” aisle.

“I’m glad I already stocked up,” said shopper Mary Lokanin, who sends her adult sons care packages filled with food and hygiene items like Clorox wipes.

Not just hand sanitizer is in demand: Disinfecting soaps, wipes, face masks and even some pantry staples are in high demand all over Anchorage right now, as residents gird for the potential spread of coronavirus transmission in Alaska’s biggest city.

Alaska has tested four people for coronavirus as of Wednesday afternoon, according to state epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin. None have tested positive.

But the state’s top public health official warned Monday that confirmed coronavirus cases in Alaska are “highly likely” in the near future.

Clearly, Alaskans have been shopping with the virus in mind.

“Due to high demand, and to support all customers, we will be limiting the number of Sanitation, Cold and Flu related products to 5 each per customer,” read a sign at the Midtown Fred Meyer, against the backdrop of a vacant shelf that in a pre-coronavirus world held foaming hand soap.

On Wednesday, the East Anchorage Costco was doing brisk business in toilet paper (supply not sold out, but notably depleted), and not a single 67-ounce Germ-X Original Hand Sanitizer could be found.

One employee felt so bad about the shortage that he asked a reporter to hold out her hand for a spritz from his own personal pocket-sized bottle of sanitizing spray, then gave it to her.

A Costco employee offered up his personal supply of hand sanitizer on March 4, 2020. (Michelle Theriault Boots / ADN)

At Costco, 50-pound bags of rice were mostly sold out too.

Hand sanitizer had been wiped clean from Carrs Huffman, the Dimond Boulevard Fred Meyer and the South Anchorage Lowe’s. Toilet paper, dried beans and Spam had dwindled at a South Anchorage Fred Meyer.

Public health officials say stocking up is not a bad idea in case of quarantines or illness, but the focus on hand sanitizer is misplaced.

The simplest, best way to protect yourself from cold and flu viruses — including the coronavirus — is to wash your hands with regular soap and water, according to state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin. The key is that you lather for 20 seconds or more and wash thoroughly.

Also, don’t touch your face. (Harder than it sounds.)

Hand sanitizer is useful if soap and water aren’t available, but really, "hand washing is the preferred method,” McLaughlin said.

The soap doesn’t have to be antibacterial, he said — in fact, antibacterial soap wouldn’t have any extra power against COVID-19 because it is caused by a virus.

Toilet paper is running a little low at Fred Meyer on Dimond Boulevard. (Anne Raup / ADN)

Face masks won’t keep you from getting sick, because there are gaps that allow respiratory droplets in. But wearing a face mask if you have symptoms of illness helps prevent transmission to others, McLaughlin said.

“Having extra supplies, soap, hand sanitizer and tissues and the like during the winter months when cold and flu viruses are circulating” is a good idea, he said. Having a supply of medication on hand is also smart.

If there’s a positive to the the threat posed by coronavirus, it’s that people are taking active steps to prepare and protect themselves, McLaughlin said.

He was pleased to hear about the high demand for soap.

“I’m really happy people are excited about washing their hands,” he said.

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