Jennifer Brooks
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The news spread with viral speed.

Settergren’s Hardware of Linden Hills just restocked the hand sanitizer.

“We have had a lot of people asking about disinfectant products,” a helpful store employee posted on the southwest Minneapolis neighborhood’s Nextdoor page Wednesday evening. “Today we just got a shipment of different size hand sanitizers, disinfectant wipes and spray.”

Shop employees arranged the goods in a careful display at one end of the aisle. Lysol and Clorox wipes, glistening bottles of Purell, face masks.

By the next morning, all of it was gone.

“It went quick,” said Mark Settergren, whose family has been in the hardware business since 1895, through more than a century of outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics.

His staff watched 400 new units of wipes, sprays and sanitizers fly out the door Thursday morning. Customers were coming in to the Penn Avenue shop “nonstop,” Settergren said, “just boom-boom-boom-boom.”

At the time, Minnesota hadn’t confirmed a single case of COVID-19.

Some people don’t want to sit around waiting for the inevitable.

Some people want to smear their entire body with hand sanitizer and wait for the inevitable.

Minnesota diagnosed its first case of coronavirus the next day.

The uncertainty makes raising public awareness a tricky proposition for public health officials. They want us worried enough to wash our hands and cover our coughs, but not so freaked out we start drinking bleach and hoarding face masks.

“Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS!” U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams tweeted in capslocked frustration last week. “They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if health care providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”

You know who else needs masks more than we do? Construction workers.

“We have a lot of contractors coming in and I can’t even supply them for their workers who are dealing with dust. That’s who I feel sorry for,” said Settergren, whose wife is an infection-control nurse who could tell you that keeping your hands off your face will keep you a lot safer than some flimsy mask.

A mask isn’t going to protect you from a virus, but it is going to protect a worker from a lungful of dust. Please, for the love of lungs, stop stockpiling masks.

Do this instead.

Cover your cough. Hands off your face. If you feel sick, stay home. Wash your hands with soap and water. Lather up long enough to sing the chorus of a catchy song and rewrite the lyrics so they’re all about disease control. Think Prince and Dolly Parton. (“This is what it sounds like ... when suds fly.” “COVID, COVID, COVID-NINETEEN ... I’m begging of you, please don’t infect my mom.”)

“I think there’s no need to really panic,” said Dr. Keith Stelter, a Mankato physician and president of the Minnesota Medical Association, noting that it’s not too late to get a flu shot or the pneumonia vaccine, if you’re over 65. They won’t prevent coronavirus, but they could protect a weakened immune system from further trouble.

Despite this practical, affordable and common-sense advice, pandemic panic has emptied store shelves across the city, state and country.

We snapped up all the Purell but not the soap. We stockpiled more disinfectant wipes than we could possibly use. We bought face masks, even after the surgeon general ordered us not to.

We did it because stocking up on products that promise to kill 99.99% of viruses makes us feel more secure. The Germans have a word for it, because the Germans have a word for everything. Hamsterkauf. Panic hoarding. (Hamsters hoard food. Don’t be a hamster.)

Trying to keep your hands off your face does not make you feel secure. Your hands are probably on your face right now. The only reason my hands aren’t on my face is because I’m typing.

It’s the same reason we throw milk, bread and eggs in the cart before a snowstorm, even though this is Minnesota. At least we usually end up using the milk, bread and eggs. Much unlike the three dozen overpriced face masks you just bought online.

It might help if we stop thinking of washing our hands and covering our sneezes as ways to protect ourselves. Most of us will be fine, even if we catch coronavirus. But we need clean hands and clear eyes if we’re going to protect our more vulnerable neighbors. The sick, the elderly, the people with compromised immune systems.

“Everyone doing their own small part,” Stelter said. “That’s the way the United States will weather this.”

The Minnesota Department of Health has information and suggestions about how to protect yourself, your family and your community at health.state.mn.us/diseases/coronavirus.

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com • 612-673-4008. Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks