Panic buying amid fear

There has been a high demand for hand sanitiser as residents stock up under a looming COVID-19 outbreak. Pharmacist Melissa Close and her staff are prepared. Photo: Kim Woods.

As global stock markets plunge and people across the world fear for their health amid the COVID-19 outbreak, a Narrandera pharmacist has called for residents to be prepared rather than panicky.

Supermarket shelves in the region were swept bare of toilet paper and hand sanitiser in a stockpiling frenzy, leaving many customers empty handed in Narrandera, Leeton, Griffith, Wagga Wagga and Albury-Wodonga.

On Monday, Coles Narrandera’s shelves were devoid of toilet paper but were restocked overnight.

In a statement, Coles announced a temporary nation-wide limit of one pack per customer while Woolworths limited customers to a two-pack transaction as their suppliers bolstered production to cope.

Australians are being urged by pharmacists to make flu vaccinations a priority in the light of the COVID-19 outbreak. Although the vaccine is not effective to prevent COVID-19, Australians could help reduce the number of influenza cases to lessen the burden on the public health system when COVID-19 cases are expected to rise.

Last year’s record breaking flu season claimed 902 lives and infected more than 313,000 people nationally. With more than 80 coronavirus cases and three deaths already in Australia and more expected, this winter is anticipated to be a demanding one for health professionals.

Narrandera pharmacist Melissa Close said if people were symptomatic (fever, cough, sore throat or shortness of breath) they should not attend pharmacies, medical centres or hospitals. Mrs Close said they should self-quarantine at home and phone the Health Direct Line 1800 022 222.

“They will be triaged by a nurse, and then advised about what to do next. If they require testing, this will be organised before they go to the hospital,” she said. “If people are unwell or asked to stay at home, they can place orders from the pharmacy over the phone and we can deliver.”

Close Pharmacy has experienced a run on hand sanitiser but reserves face masks for those displaying symptoms of the virus.

“As the news of the outbreak started to develop, we have had people coming in looking for face masks and hand sanitiser – people are taking it seriously and are trying to be prepared as possible,” Mrs Close said. “Everyone is concerned and that is quite appropriate as we are a town with a high older population so we have to do whatever we can to protect our older community.”

As front line service providers, pharmacy staff have followed advice from the Pharmacy Guild of Australia and NSW Health.

“We have cleared off all our benches and are following cleaning procedures at least every few hours, and staff are using hand sanitiser constantly to minimise their and the community’s exposure,” Mrs Close said. “We are trying to be as proactive as possible.”

Mrs Close said the pharmacy was unable to source face masks for retail sale but had masks for symptomatic customers only.

“If people seek our advice as they are unwell, our protocol is to give them a face mask, send them home and ask them to contact the Health Direct Line.”

The Narrandera Medical Centre requires patients exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms to phone staff in advance for advice.

According to the Murrumbidgee Primary Health Network, masks have been distributed across the region to general practice and pharmacies. The Australian Government has secured additional surgical, P2 and N95 masks for medical and aged care professionals to care for patients with suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19.

COVID-19 is a new strain of coronavirus not previously identified in humans and is most likely spread through close contact with an infectious person.

Mrs Close said diarrhoea was not a symptom of the virus and the toilet paper sell-out was more a reflection of panic buying.

“People have to be prepared but not panicky. We need to make sure we have enough medication for everyone in the coming months so panic buying in that regard isn’t helpful at all.

“If some of us do get coronavirus, we will get through it perfectly fine but if we are told to stay at home, then we need to do that.

“We can vaccinate people aged 16 years and over against influenza and it has made a real impact in Narrandera. The vaccine guards against the four most common of the influenza viruses and the ideal time to have it is mid April to cover the influenza season.”

Mrs Close conceded an outbreak of COVID-19 in Narrandera could make a challenging retail environment for businesses coming on top of the drought.

“If people are self-quarantined, the pharmacy will remain open to take orders by phone and home deliver.”

A parent of teenagers and service manager at Bright Horizons Child Care Centre, Rebecca Barnes, is concerned about the potential impact of coronavirus at her workplace and home.

She was among residents caught short by the panic buying of toilet paper and said she would resort to tissues or on-line buying if needed.

Ms Barnes said the threat of COVID-19 was particularly worrying for a childcare centre which caters for 100 families.

“We have a hand sanitising station at the front of the building, distribute fact sheets to parents and remind parents who are travelling we require clearance documents before they return,” she said. “We tell parents if they are unsure about symptoms to seek medical advice.”

Ms Barnes said toys and the building were being sanitised more frequently to protect the health of the young children.

RSL LifeCare Villages, operators of Teloca House, have advised the public not to visit if they have travelled overseas in the past month or if they have flu-like symptoms.

Visitors need to use hand sanitiser upon entry, keep a social distance from residents and do not bring children to aged care facilities until further notice.

For more information call the National Coronavirus Health Information Line on 1800 020 080.

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