How to prepare for a drug shortage caused by the Coronavirus

The coronavirus continues to spread around the world. The CDC director has stated it’s “inevitable” that the virus will spread in the U.S. The U.S. stock market had its third-worst point drop in history because of growing fears about the economic impact of the coronavirus. 

As the coronavirus continues to spread both globally and in the U.S., it will increasingly have an effect on everyday life. There have already been shortages of protective masks as people rush to stock up. 

Even more concerning, sometimes global crises such as disease outbreaks can affect the availability of prescription medications. When this happens, shortages may cause drug prices to increase.

While the FDA has released a statement saying it is closely monitoring the situation, below I’ve outlined some steps you can take to prepare in case of a shortage. So far, the FDA has reported that at least 150 medications might be affected, including brand name meds, generics, and speciality meds. 

What can you do if there is a drug shortage? 

Many people take daily medications to manage chronic health conditions such as high blood pressure (Crestor, Zestril), high cholesterol (Lipitor), mental health conditions (Wellbutrin XL, Zoloft, Lexapro), acid reflux (Omeprazole), and hypothyroidism (Synthroid). 

If you take such medications, it is a good idea to get extra refills ahead of time in case there is a shortage. This will also help you avoid potential price increases following further coronavirus outbreaks. 

To do this, I recommend that patients switch to 90-day refills of their drugs. 

What is a 90-day refill? 

A 30-day refill is usually the default for long-term prescription medication. It is your typical pill bottle, filled with enough medication to last you one month. Instead of just one month, a 90-day refill will last three months.  

This precautionary measure can help you avoid needing a refill in the middle of a potential shortage. 

How can I get a 90-day refill? 

To get a 90-day refill, it may help to purchase your medication out-of-pocket (in other words, not through insurance) at an online pharmacy.

This is because insurance plans sometimes interfere or  limit customers to 30-day refills, not allowing you to get a longer-lasting supply. Some retail pharmacies have similar restrictions.

In order to buy a 90-day refill, call your doctor and ask them to change your prescription to allow for 90-day refills (in case it doesn’t already). Additionally, ask them to send your prescription to an online pharmacy such as Honeybee

Is it more expensive to get a 90-day refill? 

In an analysis of ten popular maintenance medications, we found it can be cheaper to purchase 90-day refills instead of 30-day refills. 

*Prices for 30 and 90-day supplies of each medication were calculated based on a comparison of the same strength, form, and once-daily dosage using GoodRx data based on average prices at major retail stores. The sample strength chosen was based on maintenance dosage for each medication. Medication prices are subject to change.

That means you’ll both be more prepared for a potential shortage and save money at the same time. You can read our full analysis of the cost savings here

What else should I do to prepare for the virus? 

There are many other precautions I recommend taking to prepare for the arrival of the virus in the U.S. 

In addition to prescription medications, consider buying a supply of common household medications such as fever suppressors, painkillers, decongestants, cough drops, cough suppressants, and flu medicines. 

While these medications will not treat or prevent the coronavirus, there may still be shortages of them. Since it is still the flu season, it’s a good idea to have them on hand.

Keep in mind that there may be limitations on what over the counter meds you can take depending on what chronic condition you may have. For example, pregnant patients should not take NSAIDs, which include common painkillers like Advil (Ibuprofen) and Aleve (Naproxen). Patients with high blood pressure should also avoid NSAIDs, decongestants, and certain antacids. You can check with a pharmacist or doctor regarding over the counter meds and your specific chronic health condition to ensure there are no dangerous interactions and to find safe alternatives. 

Lastly, I recommend making sure you have plenty of disinfectants such as bleach, gloves, all-purpose spray, and hand soap at home. Frequently washing your hands and disinfecting surfaces in your household can help prevent the spread of viruses.  

In addition to avoiding shortages, buying supplies (prescription medications, over-the-counter medications, cleaning supplies, etc) ahead of time allows you to limit your interactions with other people during an outbreak. One of the best things you can do is prevention in a scenario like the coronavirus, and so you want to avoid social situations like waiting in line at the pharmacy if possible.

Jessica Nouhavandi