April 28, 2009 / 6:48 PM / 10 years ago

Americans anxious over swine flu

ATLANTA (Reuters) - Americans are expressing anxiety about swine flu, and the sale of flu medication and items such as protective face masks are up in some places where cases have been confirmed.

U.S. residents and tourists wait in line to cross to El Paso, Texas at the international border crossing bridge of Paso del Norte in Ciudad Juarez, April 25, 2009. REUTERS/Alejandro Bringas

“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 wholesale changes in behavior due to an outbreak of a new 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 said it had seen a jump in sales of Roche Holding AG’s flu drug Tamiflu in New York, California and New Jersey and a national increase in sales of face masks, thermometers and hand sanitizers.

Some stores in the Walgreen drug store chain had sold out of surgical masks and sales were up elsewhere in prescription Tamiflu and hand sanitizers, a spokesman said.

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 September 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 Pascal Fletcher

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