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People are stealing hand sanitizer and surgical masks from doctors' offices because of coronavirus fears

Key Points
  • People are stealing hand sanitizer and surgical masks from grocery stores and doctors' offices. 
  • Doctors say they are hiding these items for the first time. 
  • Fears about the coronavirus have led to people stockpiling hand sanitizer and other items, which is driving up prices. 
A bottle of Purell hand sanitizer.
Brian Snyder | Reuters

Dr. Brett Oliver, a family medicine doctor in Kentucky, recently noticed that the hand sanitizer keeps mysteriously disappearing from the exam rooms where he sees patients.

With the COVID-19 coronavirus continuing its spread across the globe, hand sanitizer has suddenly become a hot commodity. Prices have shot up in recent weeks, with people rushing to buy bottles of the stuff to stockpile at home. The CDC recommends washing hands with soap and water thoroughly, but when that's not available, using a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol is a reasonable substitute.

Now, with people availing themselves of whole bottles of hand sanitizer, doctors' offices have started to remove supplies from common areas. It's vital there is enough leftover for their medical providers to use.

"I've been in medicine for two decades and I interact with a lot of sick people, but gosh I haven't encountered the level of fear you're seeing now," said Oliver. 

It's not just hand sanitizer. Dr. Chesney Fowler, an emergency medicine physician who takes an occasional shift at hospitals in Maryland and Washington D.C., said nurses are now routinely counting blue surgical masks at the top of each shift because so many are being swiped. That used to be the standard practice for controlled substances, like opiate medications, which are liable to get stolen, she said. 

Likewise at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital, emergency medicine physician Dr. Shuhan He said that his hospital has started hiding surgical masks in urgent care, and that staff are increasingly vigilant in the emergency room. He said he noticed last week that someone was trying to swipe masks off of a cart.

"I told the patient's family-member to knock it off, and (we figured) that we had to get a better policy."

He believes some people are taking supplies because they're fearful, and can't afford them online. But others might see a money-making opportunity in selling the items. Hand sanitizer, for instance, is currently for sale for more than $80 on Amazon.

Hospitals are not the only victims of the Purell thieves.

Rachel Gopin works at a kosher grocery store in Hollywood, California. She came into work on Monday, opened the store, and within a few hours, she noticed that someone had taken the hand sanitizer next to the registers. Dr. Oliver, who works in Kentucky, said that at his local grocery store, someone walked off with two half-used bottles of it and slapped a $20 bill down on the register. 

It's unclear how these thieves are getting away with such blatant thievery. One theory is that people are coming in with smaller bottles that fit into a bag or purse, and filling those up with hand sanitizer before making a hasty exit.

In some cases, the theft has taken a more serious turn. In New York, Governor Cuomo told reporters at a press conference that people are even taking medical equipment, including respirator masks and other protective wear. 

That's a huge problem. In the U.S., the Department of Health and Human Services has said that the country only has 1% of the required number of respirator masks that would be needed for medical professionals if the outbreak erupts into a pandemic.

Some hospital executives have started speaking out to implore people not to steal from their facilities, no matter how anxious thy feel. UT Health in Austin, has also seen a bump in theft of hand sanitizer and surgical masks, according to chief information health officer Aaron Miri.

"There's a level of uncertainly floating out there so people are acting out," he said. "I do want to implore the general public to please think before doing stuff like this, you are hurting your family, your community and your city."

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