Katie Wroniak, manager of Black Bear Medical, said the showroom on Marginal Way is sold out of medical masks because of COVID-19 fears. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Black Bear Medical stocks all kinds of medical supplies, from wheelchairs and walkers to compression socks and braces.

But you won’t find medical face masks on the Portland store’s shelves.

“They’re on back order,” said Katie Wroniak, manager of the store on Marginal Way. “We haven’t been able to get them for probably six weeks and they’re talking about six months before we ever see them again.”

Pond Cove IGA in Cape Elizabeth had a bare shelf Thursday where sanitizing wipes normally would be. Assistant store manager Ernie Livingston said the shortage has been going on for three weeks, when he placed his last order. “You can’t even get it now, even if you go to Amazon,” he said. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

A drain on supplies such as face masks is among the effects of the coronavirus, the epidemic whose spread in the U.S. seems to be expanding daily. Although no cases of the virus have been confirmed in Maine, many store shelves in the state have been stripped of hand sanitizers and disinfecting wipes, two common household products that many believe could help keep the illness’s germs in check. Experts say regular and thorough hand-washing is the most effective preventive measure.

Wroniak said face masks weren’t in particularly high demand at Black Bear in the past.

“We used to keep boxes upon boxes upon boxes on the shelves,” she said. Now, the business gets 60 to 80 calls daily from people, many of them outside of Maine, looking for the face masks, and she has to turn them away.

Wroniak normally stocks the good stuff: N95 respirators, which filter out most airborne particles and are deemed the best choice among face masks for warding off coronavirus germs. In fact, federal health officials are asking the public to stop buying those masks to prevent a shortage for those who need them, such as health care workers who will be caring for patients who contract the coronavirus.

Many other face masks are ineffective at guarding against the illness, officials have said.

Like Wroniak’s lack of face masks, many Maine pharmacies and grocery stores now feature bare shelves where sanitizers and wipes were once displayed.

Maine Hardware President Rick Tucker, standing next to a display that’s usually full of respirator masks, said the store’s supply of hand sanitizers, disinfectant wipes and dust masks sold out this week. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

A hole on the shelf was all that remained of the sanitizing wipes at Pond Cove IGA in Cape Elizabeth late Thursday afternoon. Assistant store manager Ernie Livingston said the shortage has been going on for three weeks, when he placed his last order.

“You can’t even get it now, even if you go to Amazon,” Livingston said.

The shortages aren’t specific to Maine. For example, sales of hand sanitizers in the U.S. were up 73 percent in the four weeks ending Feb. 22 compared to the same period a year ago, according to market research firm Nielsen, The Associated Press reported. It said many consumers across the country have reported having trouble finding the items, and that manufacturers have vowed to ramp up production.

The shortages are well-known – shoppers interviewed outside some stores Thursday said they didn’t head out looking for the items, although some said they regularly check for sanitizers or wipes when they’re out shopping for other items, to see if the depleted supplies have been restocked.

But Karen Paul of Portland wasn’t among them – she said she knew that the Walgreens just down the street from her office wouldn’t have the items. Paul works at InterMed, the health care provider, which recently took away the stacks of face masks that used to greet patients as they entered the waiting rooms. The masks were intended for people who were sick, to keep them from spreading germs, but too many patients were taking the masks to use later, she said.

Patients can still get a mask if they request one, she said.

Chelsea Landry of Portland stocked up on hand sanitizers out of concern for her two school-aged children.  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Many of those out shopping Thursday said they have stepped up their hygiene efforts because they have young children at home. That group included Doug Libby of South Portland, who found disinfecting wipes at the Shaw’s store in the Mill Creek neighborhood, one of the few retailers that seemed to have an ample supplies of wipes.

“I’m probably a little late to the party,” Libby said, adding that he has been spending more time watching his 1-year-old grandson. “It’s probably good to have some on hand.”

Chelsea Landry of Portland said she’s most concerned about her two school-age children contracting the virus. She stocked up on hand sanitizers before the illness started to spread, she said, but her family has always practiced good hygiene because her youngest child has asthma and a weakened immune system.

“They’re talking to the kids at school” about it, she said, reinforcing the message at home.

Peggy Malek of South Portland said she stocked up on hand sanitizer and wipes because “I’ve got two granddaughters.”

Mary Atkinson doesn’t want to overreact to fears about the coronavirus. “I’m not panicking about this yet,” she said.  Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

But Mary Atkinson of Portland said she’s worried about overreacting to the illness before it becomes clear just how widespread it will become. Atkinson also said she already had some supplies of sanitizers and wipes at home.

“I’m not panicking about this yet,” she said.

Doug Bushey of South Portland said he took another route to keep his supply of disinfecting wipes stocked – an order through Amazon arrived at his house Wednesday. But his mother-in-law, Jan Caron, also of South Portland, said she’s repurposing some other supplies to kill germs and keep surfaces clean.

“I use vodka,” she said. “It’s got alcohol, it’s all natural and there are no chemical additives.”

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