First, the Charmin vanished from grocery store shelves, a result of panic-buying when the coronavirus outbreak began in the U.S. 

Then shoppers couldn’t find other paper products, cleaning supplies, hand soap, and sanitizers. Long lines formed at grocery stores and a black market emerged as purchase limits were put into place and the city shut down. 

When certain food items became scarce, the real troubles began. On March 20, a mother posted to a Facebook group: “Anybody see Uncrustables [sandwiches] out there? My son is autistic and this is one of the five things he eats.” 

Her pleas were answered: “Dollar General had a bunch. I can pick ‘em up if necessary.”

A scarcity of personal protective equipment and face masks, medical supplies, and blood was perhaps not surprising. But product shortages of all kinds – from edibles to electronics – have persisted in the months since the pandemic began. 

A local expert says the crippling of supply chains by sales surges and a worldwide public health emergency needs to change before the next crisis. In the meantime, though, San Antonians are banding together online to help each other find the products they need.

In March, during the peak shopping frenzy, stores ran out of 13 percent of their items on average, according to a Wall Street Journal report. Officials implored the public to stop hoarding, saying the warehouses were full, and H-E-B assured customers it was stocking shelves as fast as possible.

While the panic-buying has let up, even now, roughly 10 percent of items remain out of stock, compared with a pre-pandemic range of 5 percent to 7 percent.

As of Friday, the only food item left on H-E-B’s list of products that had a max purchase number was brisket (limit two).

Consumer goods shortages are not just limited to groceries. As spring quarantine stretched into summer, items such as bicycles, sports drinks, camping gear, swimming pools, trampolines, fitness equipment, and the Nintendo Switch game console became harder to find. 

Chicks, sewing machines, and baking products were selling out as the homebound sought new hobbies. Firearms and ammunition flew off the shelves. Coin circulation was disrupted and concern over potential condom shortages was widely reported.

In recent weeks, pepperoni also made the hard-to-find list. And with school starting remotely, laptops and desks are hot items. 

Howard Grimes, UTSA associate vice president and associate vice provost for institutional initiatives and CEO for the Cybersecurity Manufacturing and Innovation Institute, said supply chain weaknesses need to be shored up.

“The COVID-19 crisis has challenged our nation’s ability to respond rapidly to a pandemic threat, and it further exposed vulnerabilities in supply chains that we simply have to address to ensure national and economic security in the face of threats such as pandemics, or cyberattacks, and frankly the rise of more technologically advanced adversaries,” Grimes said.

“So as we rebuild our economy post-COVID, supply chains must become resilient and they must become cyber-secure.”

To be considered “resilient,” Grimes said, the supply chain needs manufacturers to maintain a stockpile of raw materials and secure digital designs for products that can be deployed at a moment’s notice. For example, auto manufacturer General Motors was able to adjust to making badly needed ventilators, but it took them months to make the switch. 

In Grimes’ view, it should take only a day or two to make such a pivot. And the pandemic exposed this vulnerability in the supply chain like never before, he said. Five million companies around the world had one or more suppliers in the impacted region of China where the outbreak began. 

“So when COVID hit Wuhan, it was disruptive,” Grimes said. 

Supply chain logistics helps explain the shortages, but consumers just know that they can’t get their favorite flavor of Pop-Tarts, prices have gone up on things like meat, or that they have to wait longer for delivery of their new Peloton gear. That feeds the frenzy.

“What they know is something happened and I better go out there and I better make sure I have enough of the X Y or Z to get by for a few months,” Grimes said. “So I think that’s … almost more psychology than anything.” 

To help her family and friends cope, Sara Lucy Nañez founded the public Facebook group Grocery Supply Update early in the pandemic. It now has over 60,000 members and grows daily – even as the epic toilet paper crisis of 2020 appears to have subsided.

Sara Lucy Nañez. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Nowadays the group’s members are seeking Mexican rice sauce, soy sauce, and paper plates, and sharing reports about why it’s hard to find soft drinks, like Dr Pepper, and craft beer in aluminum cans, and where the next free food pantry will be offered. 

Nañez, who was laid off shortly after creating the group, moderates discussions with the help of her husband and a friend. For the most part, commenters try to help.

“There was a lady who posted on there last week that she was in need of food and [recently] she said she’s no longer in need because of the outpouring [of help] she received,” Nañez said.  

The page has grown into a vast cross section of the San Antonio-area community mostly through word of mouth, she said. She encourages the group’s members to invite others and to reach out to their neighbors who don’t use social media.

“I think a lot of people see the value in it, and they want to be able to help their friends and family and they just continually add their friends and family,” she said. 

The group continues to expand in numbers and beyond its original mission while serving needs created during the pandemic. Every Wednesday, the makers of face masks are invited to advertise on the page. 

On Saturday for the first time, Nañez invited small-business owners in the group to post information and links about their products and services. What followed was an impressive thread of posts offering everything under the sun – water slides, piñatas, charcuterie boards, auto detailing services, and, of course, more face masks.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.