Thermometer shortage a source of frustration as COVID-19 cases rise

As the number of positive coronavirus cases continues to rise, the number of thermometers available on store shelves is going down to the point where they've become a hard-to-find item.

But health unit doesn't want people to go thermometer shopping

Many London pharmacists are having trouble keeping thermometers in stock. (Travis Dolyny/CBC)

If you have a working thermometer in your home right now, count yourself lucky and take good care of it. 

That's because as COVID-19 case numbers continue to climb, pharmacies in the London area say thermometers are in short supply. Health officials list fever as one of the most common symptoms of the coronavirus along with cough, difficulty breathing, digestive symptoms such as diarrhea. A guide to the early signs and symptoms is here

Pharmacist Victor Boran works at the Bellwood Pharmacy in a shopping plaza at Oxford Street East and Gammage Street. 

He says thermometers have been difficult to get from his wholesaler and when they do make it to the shelf, they don't last long. In the last few weeks, he's received a few calls from customers saying they need a thermometer urgently.

"People have been coming in daily, like two, three, four a day, looking for thermometers," he said.  "They're calling on the phone, looking for a thermometer some are saying 'I need a thermometer right now it's an emergency. '"

Generally, a personal thermometer is not a huge seller in his pharmacy, Boran said. In a typical month, he might only sell one. But since the coronavirus outbreak truly took hold in North America, the demand has far outstripped supply. 

Boran said he's concerned that customers, including some who may be sick and symptomatic, are travelling from retailer to retailer to find a thermometer at a time when health officials are advising everyone to stay inside and self isolate as much as possible, especially if they're showing any symptoms. 

As of Monday, his ordering system indicated he wouldn't be able to order more thermometers until late June, though he said that could change if the wholesaler gets a shipment. 

It's a similar story on the other side of town at TMC Pharmacy on Gainsborough Road. 

Pharmacist Samer Serhan and his partner made news earlier this month by making their own hand sanitizer to address a similar shortage and price gouging.

And while the homemade hand sanitizer has been popular, Serhan can't build digital thermometers. 

"They have been very hard to find," he said. "We had a shipment two weeks ago but we're sold out now and we've been having a really hard time getting any more."

When he says sold out, he means the inexpensive digital thermometers, which can retail for between $10 and $20. 

Serhan said he does have a few of the more advanced thermometers in stock that can take a temperature by touching a forehead or being inserted into the ear. Those come with price tags in the $50 range, but Serhan said desperate customers are buying them up anyway. 

 "Even those are in very short supply," he said. 

The Middlesex-London Health Unit says now is not the time to go thermometer shopping. Instead, the health unit recommends those with mild symptoms stay inside and self-isolate until they feel better. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

'We are not running out of essential supplies'

In a statement Loblaw, the parent company of Shoppers Drug Mart Corporation, said they are working to address the shortages of all scarce items, including thermometers. 

"We understand the frustration of an empty shelf, but want to ensure Canadians that we are not running out of essential supplies," says a statement sent to CBC News. "We've assigned an entire team to the challenge of rapidly re-stocking key health items like thermometers, and we are doing everything we can to get our supply back to normal."

McKesson Canada, the parent company of Rexall, also said they're working to meet the rising demand of thermometers and other products caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The statement also says people don't need to buy more than they need.  

"It is unnecessary for Canadian consumers or retailers to mass order products," the statement says. "We encourage patients and customers to refill maintenance medications and seek healthcare essentials in a responsible manner to avoid unnecessary strain on the system."

CBC News contacted 10 London pharmacies Friday, none had thermometers in stock, and many reported having them on backorder. Retailers like Walmart showed some were available for online ordering but many models were listed as sold out of stores. 

Don't go thermometer shopping, health unit says

So what should people do if they suspect they have a fever and want to buy a thermometer to confirm it? 

The Middlesex-London Health Unit's response: Don't go thermometer shopping, unless it's online. Instead, they recommend anyone with a fever or other symptoms stay at home and self-isolate until they feel better. If the symptoms become severe, such as difficulty breathing, then the health unit recommends heading to a hospital emergency room. 

Shortages of everything from toilet paper to disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer have been a problem in recent weeks. 

On Saturday, Premier Doug Ford announced steeper fines and even jail time for price-gouging, saying the province would take a "no tolerance" approach to people trying to profit from the pandemic.


Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.


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