April 28, 2009 / 6:42 PM / 11 years ago

In US, there's anxiety over swine flu but no panic

* Americans appear anxious, not panicked, about swine flu

* Some express skepticism about health threat

By Matthew Bigg

ATLANTA, April 28 (Reuters) - Americans are expressing anxiety about swine flu but there are few signs of panic, although sales of flu medication and items like protective face masks are up in some places where cases have been confirmed.

“It’s a weird situation right now,” said Aaron Armelin, a telecommunications technician in Los Angeles.

“Everyone’s a little leery of anyone coughing. Even though the news makes it seem really, really bad, it doesn’t seem like it’s actually that much of a concern,” Armelin added.

Interviews with people around the United States indicated few signs of panic or evidence of wholesale changes in behavior due to an outbreak of a new swine flu virus that has sickened people in several U.S. states and killed up to 149 people in neighboring Mexico.

Big drug store chain Rite Aid Corp (RAD.N) said it had seen a jump in sales of Roche Holding AG’s ROG.VX flu drug Tamiflu in New York and an increase in sales of face masks, gloves and hand sanitizers in New York and California. Both states have confirmed cases of swine flu.

But another big drug store chain CVS (CVS.N) said it had not seen a run on flu-related items like facial masks or hand sanitizing products.

Some people said they were struggling to balance their concern over the virus with what they saw as media exaggeration of the threat.

“People are fairly skeptical about the whole thing. They are just tired of the media that blows things out of proportion,” said Ron Ladner, who owns a restaurant in the small town of Pass Christian on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.

“Most people ... have other problems. In a normal environment they might be worried, but most people are concerned about the economy and paying their bills,” Ladner said.


The flu outbreak comes at a time when the United States is mired in its worst economic recession in decades, increasing a sense for some people of multiple threats to stability coming all at once.

“It’s on all the media, people with masks on their faces, and it’s frightening,” said Carole Brazsky, who works in a coffee shop in Scottsdale, Arizona.

“First it’s jobs, then it’s foreclosures, now it’s this. It’s just one more thing. It’s like: when is it going to stop?” she said.

A previous event that spurred changes in U.S. consumer behavior was the Sept. 11, 2001 attack, said Michael Walton, an economics professor at North Carolina State University.

That triggered a short-term spike in purchases of bottled water and food because of fears that the population might be deprived of access to basic goods, as well as a drop in the number of people taking flights, Walton noted.

“If we do see this (swine flu) escalate with thousands of cases and perhaps deaths and if we see increasingly cautionary tones from government officials, then consumers would react similar to 9/11. But we don’t see anything like that now,” he said.

Even so, some people said they were taking extra precautions particularly in social environments.

“People are talking more about that — ‘Have we got hand sanitizer?’ and, ‘Everybody wash their hands,’” said Hugo Ospina, who works for a law firm in downtown Los Angeles. He added that people were “a little scared.”

Additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Tim Gaynor in Phoenix; Editing by Jane Sutton and Will Dunham

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