clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Need a thermometer to check for coronavirus? Good luck finding one

Online and at stores around Chicago, consumers are finding few personal care thermometers.

An empty sales rack that held thermometers at Walgreens, 1051 W. Randolph St. on Tuesday. Many stores and online sites are reflecting a shortage of thermometers due to the coronavirus pandemic.
An empty sales rack that held thermometers at Walgreens, 1051 W. Randolph St. on Tuesday. Many stores and online sites are reflecting a shortage of thermometers due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Tyler LaRiviere / Sun-Times

Betsy Hetzler has been trying to buy a thermometer for her 86-year-old father for three weeks, with no luck.

“I’ve been checking [stores] regularly,” said Hetzler, of Geneva, who’d like a forehead model just in case the family needs to monitor his temperature for coronavirus symptoms.

But she’s reaching the point where almost any thermometer will do. She ordered one on Amazon, but it has a May 1 delivery date.

Consumers around the country are finding that if they don’t have a household thermometer in their medicine cabinet, it could be awhile before they can get one. As with shortages of face masks and other personal health-care items in the age of COVID-19, the supply of thermometers has dwindled online and in stores.

An elevated temperature is one of the key signs of infection with the novel coronavirus, though not everyone infected will develop a fever.

Still, taking your temperature is one of the recommended steps in determining whether a person has the virus.

A Chicago Sun-Times check this week of online thermometer listings on Amazon, Walgreens, Walmart, Target and CVS turned up almost no available stock, with “buy” buttons disabled or shipping dates pushed back as far as May or even June.

Screenshot of a Walgreens.com thermometers search with “out of stock” notations highlighted.
Screenshot of a Walgreens.com thermometers search with “out of stock” notations highlighted.
Stephanie Zimmermann / Sun-Times

In-store availability is spotty across Chicago, with many stores completely out or having only a few thermometers.

Sunil Chopra, a Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management professor who’s an authority on operations management, said the thermometer supply chain — much like that for face masks — was hit with a double-whammy of demand rising just as China, the main producer, was overwhelmed with COVID-19 infections.

Chinese consumers were buying thermometers for their own families as factories in China were shutting down because workers were getting sick.

Now, U.S. consumers want thermometers, but there aren’t many left.

“Supply dropped while demand went up,” Chopra said. Normally there would be excess supply in warehouses, “but they’re empty, no supplies coming.”

The good news is that personal-care thermometers aren’t particularly complex to manufacture, so it shouldn’t be long before supplies return, according to Chopra.

A hand is holding a thermometer over a sink in this photo. Personal care thermometers are in high demand as people test themselves for fever during the coronavirus pandemic.
Personal care thermometers are in high demand as people test themselves for fever during the coronavirus pandemic.
Stephanie Zimmermann / Sun-Times

Target said it’s “coordinating stores, distribution centers and supplies so that the things our guests need most … are fast-tracked through the supply chain and prioritized for restocking.”

Amazon said: “Inventory on certain items may be temporarily unavailable due to increased demand. We are working with our partners to get these items back in stock as quickly as possible.” Amazon didn’t offer specifics on the timeline for that.

CVS said, “We’re working with our suppliers to restock as quickly as possible.”

Walmart and Walgreens didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Hetzler, the west suburban woman, has a Plan B in case things get desperate. A relative has offered to mail their thermometer to her father if he still needs it. But that person wasn’t keen on standing in line at a post office because of the coronavirus, she said, so she continues her search.

“I’m going to continue to look,” she said.