British Columbia

Shoppers stocking up in Metro Vancouver as concern about coronavirus spreads

The lines were long and the shelves fairly picked over at grocery stores in Metro Vancouver over the weekend, with concerned shoppers stocking up on supplies as more cases of COVID-19 are confirmed closer to home.

B.C. health officials confirmed the province's 8th case on Saturday but say not to panic

One brand of masks was nearly sold out at Canadian Tire in Vancouver on Monday, though other brands were still available. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The lines were long and the shelves fairly picked over at grocery stores in Metro Vancouver over the weekend, with concerned shoppers stocking up on supplies as more cases of COVID-19 are confirmed closer to home.

Worries over the spreading coronavirus grew across B.C.'s South Coast after Washington state declared a state of emergency on Saturday, following the death of one person from the illness caused by the virus. By Monday, the state had 18 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including six deaths.

There are eight cases of the illness in B.C., with the most recent announced by health officials on Saturday. Four of those patients have fully recovered.

Shoppers flooded into stores over the weekend, leading to a spike in sales at London Drugs locations.

"A lot of people were actually looking for cleaning aids, disinfectant wipes, paper towels, toilet paper," says Chris Chiew, the general manager of pharmacy.

If shoppers noticed empty shelves, he says, the items have since been restocked.

However, the chain is struggling to keep in stock masks, hand sanitizers and rubber gloves. Shipments that do arrive get snapped up quickly.

At Costco, items like toilet paper, bread and disinfectant wipes were also in demand.

"A lot of stuff was bought up quickly — like within a half hour," said shopper Danielle Yu, who was at the Costco location in Burnaby on Sunday.

"I think people are panicked about hoarding stuff."

Cleaning products were still in stock at nearby Superstore, though the shelf designated for disinfectant Lysol wipes was completely bare. Workers pushing fresh stock through the store on Monday joked to one another that "everybody thinks the world is ending," though they seemed unconcerned and were already refilling shelves.

An empty shelf designated for Lysol wipes is pictured at Superstore in Vancouver on Monday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

One Canadian Tire store in Vancouver displayed its gloves, masks and goggles at the front of the store.

Shoppers were greeted by a mannequin wearing white disposable coveralls, a disposable mask, rubber cleaning gloves and clear goggles. A number of incredulous shoppers stared, tossed a bottle of hand sanitizer into their carts and moved along.

A disposable coveralls display at Canadian Tire in Vancouver on Monday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

No need for panic: health experts

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry told reporters Monday that there's no reason to stockpile masks, but it's always good to be prepared, especially in an area that's prone to earthquakes.

"We don't expect our systems to be affected as much [by COVID-19] as they would be with a natural disaster," Henry added.

In a call with media Monday afternoon, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's Chief Public Health Officer said Canadians should be "sensible" about preparations rather than suddenly stockpile goods.

"Canadians have time to get prepared," she said. There's no need to go at it in a massive rush."

She recommends planning for interruptions if you do get sick from COVID-19, such as determining caretakers for dependents and establishing a support network to check in on friends and neighbours.

Health officials continue to stress that proper handwashing is the best way to ward off COVID-19.

Experts have said there is no need for alarm, even though the virus is so near home.

"We are seeing an increasing spread of the virus and now it is very close to us in Washington state," said Dr. Jocelyn Srigley, corporate director of infection control for the Provincial Health Services Authority in B.C. 

"But for the general public, there is no need to worry too much."

Shelves meant for bread were empty at the Costco location in downtown Vancouver on Sunday. ( Franny Karlinsky/CBC)

She said the province of B.C. is "very much on top" of containing the spread of coronavirus by identifying cases early on and making sure those with the virus are isolated. 

"The risk of the virus is not much worse than influenza," Srigley said.

"Really, washing your hands is one of the most important things that you can do."

'No harm' in stocking up, shoppers say

For those navigating the busy aisles at grocery stores, though, urgings of calm only go so far. 

Yu was only planning to buy her usual groceries for the week but admitted to throwing in a few extra items to her cart, just in case. 

"[I bought] just regular stuff, maybe a little bit of hoarding, but not too crazy," Yu said. 

Lorena Morales found herself in a similar situation during her Sunday grocery run.

"I was just doing my regular shopping but I never thought it would be like this," she said.

She noticed many of the carts around her piled high with bulk packages of toilet paper. 

Shoppers at Superstore buy paper towel and toilet paper in Vancouver on Monday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"I bought toilet paper because I saw people buying toilet paper. I know it's crazy," she said. 

"But in catastrophes like this, it does make sense. I [thought] why not, there's no harm in having extra toilet paper." 

Costco employees working in Metro Vancouver told CBC News they believe people are stocking up over fears of coronavirus and the possibility of being quarantined. Other staff said any gaps in stock could also be due to rail blockades that have sprung up across the country in recent weeks, delaying product deliveries from the East Coast.

CBC News has reached out to Canadian Tire, Costco, Safeway, Save-On-Foods, Shoppers Drug Mart, Superstore and T&T Supermarkets to ask about low stock and an increase in customers.

With files from Anita Bathe, Deborah Goble, Rhianna Schmunk and Lien Yeung