Customers in some military stores — especially in some areas overseas — have begun to see shortages of hand sanitizers and other products suddenly in high demand because of fears of the coronavirus, and store officials are scrambling to get more products on the shelves.

Commissary officials have been increasing deliveries to overseas stores as needed, especially with items like hand sanitizer, said Kevin Robinson, spokesman for the Defense Commissary Agency. Because some of their shipping containers have been delayed at port, the commissary agency has increased air shipments of items in high demand to help mitigate the problems.

The Army and Air Force Exchange Service and Navy Exchange Service Command have seen shortages of hand sanitizers and masks in certain overseas areas like South Korea, Italy, Japan, Rota and Bahrain, as there are limited quantities of these supplies worldwide. But AAFES is also starting to see shortages at some locations in the continental U.S., said AAFES spokesman Chris Ward. Both organizations are working quickly to replenish the stocks on hand, officials said.

NEXCOM officials have been ordering extra quantities of certain items like masks, hand sanitizer, cleaning wipes and hand sanitizing wipes for distribution to Navy Exchange stores in Japan, Guam, Europe and Bahrain. NEXCOM is pursuing all available avenues for getting the products. Last week, NEXCOM was able to get 24,000 units of masks and more than 70,000 units of hand sanitizer, said NEXCOM spokeswoman Courtney Williams. Local procurement teams in Europe and Japan are working on getting additional supplies for those markets, she said.

Marine Corps exchanges aren’t seeing shortages at this time, but their logistics officials have been working to ensure there’s emergency stock available of items like hand sanitizer, said spokesman Bryan Driver. Those officials are also working with AAFES and NEXCOM, through their joint buying partnership.

There haven’t been shortages of hand soap, which is the recommended way to sanitize hands. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, washing hands is the most effective way to prevent the spread of germs. If soap and water aren’t readily available, then use a hand sanitizer — one that is alcohol-based and contains at least 60 percent alcohol.

While Defense Commissary Agency officials recommend that customers always be ready for any emergency, “we recommend that they calmly purchase what they need and avoid any panic buying to ensure products are available for others in their communities,” Robinson said.

NEXCOM is also beginning to see delays and shortages across multiple categories of other items, because of manufacturing and shipping issues out of China, Williams said. For example, it’s affecting certain items in categories of electronics, lawn and garden and assembled furniture where the items may be manufactured in another country, but specific components are made in China.

While impacts on AAFES shipments from overseas have been minimal, some orders have been pushed back two or three weeks as some overseas factories are operating at less than 50 percent capacity, Ward said. There have also been disruptions in the shipping because of vessel cancellations, which results in less space available for cargo overall; and reductions in operations at ports and terminals because of that decline in cargo movement, he said.

All the store officials, including commissary officials, have been working with suppliers. Commissary officials are monitoring inventory levels at their distribution centers, and working closely with senior leaders on the ground to deal with problems that might affect timely delivery of products — such as delays of those shipping containers at port.

The American Logistics Association, a trade group representing the industry that supplies products to commissaries and exchanges, has set up a “Resale Reaction” communications channel, to increase the flow of information from service members, family members, and employees of commissaries and exchanges, to help those stores make sure products are available in affected areas. Provide local updates and alerts by mentioning @ResaleReaction in tweets, or post an update at

In addition to their efforts to get extra products to stores, the exchanges are helping in other ways. For example, NEXCOM, which operates the Navy Lodge Program, is ready for any one of its 39 facilities worldwide to be used as an official isolation or quarantine site, said Williams. NEXCOM’s Ship Store Program is also ready to help with any shortages on board ships’ stores, she said.

Commissaries and food safety

The Defense Commissary Agency is always on guard to protect food on its shelves from potential danger, Robinson said. “The sources of the products sold in the commissaries go through an extensive assessment process conducted by food safety experts in the Army Veterinary Corps before they are deemed as an approved source.

“We have military veterinarians and store food safety specialists inspecting food sources, deliveries and products on the shelves to help ensure they’re free of potential contaminants.”

Commissary employees are required to follow the highest standards of DoD health protection in their stores, with strict precautionary measures starting with routine hand washing, he said.

“Preparing for and responding to emergencies is nothing new for DeCA,” Robinson said. “Over the years, commissaries have dealt with all natural and man-made crises. Working with military leaders during such times, our dedicated employees and industry suppliers continued to deliver the benefit. And we will continue to do so in response to these events.”

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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