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Coronavirus drives local sales of surgical masks and hand sanitizer

Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Local concerns over the coronavirus haven’t boiled over into full-blown panic. But Boston area residents and visitors are still being cautious.

Stores across Cambridge have emptied their shelves of hand sanitizer bottles and surgical masks as concerned customers buy up their entire supplies. Some have been out for days.

“We literally have none [hand sanitizer]. Our warehouse has none,” said Danny Fentin, 22, a Porter Square Tags Hardware employee, whose upcoming trip Milan was cancelled due to virus concerns. Usually, he added, the store is “overstocked.”

At a Target store in Union Square, shoppers looking for hand sanitizer came up empty-handed.

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“This aisle is crowded” Diane Mulrey, 67, of Somerville said with a laugh, as people leaned towards where hand sanitizer is typically stocked.

She’d already unsuccessfully been to about six places in recent days— grocery stores, dollar stores, drug stores— checking as she went on other errands.

“I’m not fearful something’s going to happen,” she said. “I just want to keep it clean.”

New England CVS stores have also experienced shortages of surgical masks and hand sanitizer as cases crop up across the US.

“This demand may cause temporary shortages for these products at some store locations and we re-supply those stores as quickly as possible,” said Joe Good, a spokesman for the Rhode Island-based pharmacy chain.

A spokeswoman for Stop & Shop said the grocery store chain had experienced a bump in surgical mask and hand sanitizer sales as well.

Locals may be taking snatching up supplies, but they aren’t fearful.

“We lived through SARS, Ebola, the bird flu, and all of a sudden we’re freaking out about this?” said Whole Foods shopper Abdul-Adal, 36,.

“I bought bottles of water yesterday, but that’s about it,” said Rebecca Kim, 28, who was also shopping at the store in the South End on Saturday. “Most people in Massachusetts have health insurance and there are lots of hospitals in the area, so that might be why we’re freaking out less.”

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“I think if you wash your hands and stay away from people who sneeze, you’ll be fine,” said Karen Gacicia of Boston, 74, who shopped at Roche Bros. supermarket in Downtown Crossing Saturday.

US Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams urged the public not to buy masks Saturday, warning that they are ineffective at stopping the spread of the virus, also known as Covid-19, and that hoarding them only makes them scarcer for health care professionals.

“...if health care providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!” Adams tweeted.

The Center for Disease Control recommends hand sanitizer as a way to avoid catching the virus, but only if soap and water are not available.

Rhode Island health officials announced the state’s first presumed case of coronavirus on Sunday, a man in his 40s who traveled to Italy in mid-February. If confirmed by federal authorities, it would only be the second case in New England after Massachusetts health officials announced Feb. 1 that a UMass Boston student who had traveled to China, had contracted the virus.

Some visitors to Boston said they are not too worried about contracting the virus here.

“I’m not stocking up too much. This is not an epidemic, compared to deaths with the flu. I’m not overly concerned,” said Alan Rubin, 58, of South Florida, who was shopping Saturday at a Whole Foods on Cambridge Street. He is in the city for this week because his wife is at Mass General Hospital. “I’m trying to fly with a mask if I can, but that’s it.”

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“I’m looking for masks, but I can’t find them,” said Yasmin Rafael, 26, of Germany, who is visiting family in Boston. In her shopping cart was some fresh produce and hummus. “Germany said to prepare keep a one-month stock of food. Here, I don’t see as much panic."