ROANOKE, Va. — The great toilet paper shortage of 2020 started out as a silly rumor. Since all types of face masks were suddenly not to be found in any of the local stores the rumor about other paper products becoming scarce also became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Panic shoppers were grabbing all the toilet paper, paper towels and tissues they could get their hands on. The supply chain adversely affected by COVID-19 could not keep up with the sudden increased demand.

Normally conservative buyers stocked up with all they could buy and filled their homes with as much of a supply as they could find. Trust in the supply chain had been lost.

This new behavior lasted for many months. I was in Sam’s Club one day when a shipment of toilet paper arrived and was put out in the store. These were the very large packages with 45 rolls per bundle. They put a limit of only two of these bundles per customer so almost everyone grabbed two with a few grabbing even more.

In hindsight, one bundle of 45 rolls per customer would have been more than enough to get a customer through several months. But no one was operating out of a rational mind.

I mention this because textile shortages that occur in a healthcare facility operate on a similar principle. A lack of faith in the supply chain to deliver the right amount of linen on a routine basis causes front-line staff to hoard linen. They fear that an item like washcloths will not be there when they need it so they stash away washcloths in a hiding place only known to them. That way they will be available when they need them.

It is an essential supply item for their work and the care of their patients. Hiding them in a location that only they know about ensures two things. It makes sure that when the supply is short—they have what they need to meet their patients’ needs—and if enough front-line staff does the same thing, it also ensures there will be a product shortage.

In order for a textile distribution system to work properly, the amount of textile products in the system is determined by the amount used in a given time. Hoarding stops the circulation of linen and creates unexpected additional demand not planned for in the inventory levels. The very fear of a shortage guarantees that there will be a shortage.

So how do you break this cycle once it starts? People stopped hoarding toilet paper when it became obvious that the supply on the store shelves would be there when they needed it. Once people became comfortable with the supply, they continued to use their stocked supplies and stopped purchasing for a while.

Unfortunately with textile products, hoarded linen tends to stay hoarded even after the supply system has proved the problem no longer exists.

A maintenance crew redoing a patient unit in Memphis found over 5,000 washcloths stuck above the ceiling tiles in the storeroom. The hospital had not used that style of washcloths for over five years. It is very likely that the staff responsible for hiding the washcloths no longer worked for that unit or even for that hospital.

So what is the best defense against the hoarding of textile products? That is simple: Always supply the units with the appropriate number of textiles and quickly respond with additional product when a surge in usage occurs.

Combine this with an excellent communication system designed to educate the end-users on the potential problems that will be created by shortages and hoarding. We simply must guard against normal human instincts and provide the service and communication necessary to prevent them from acting on those normal human urges.

This is not a situation where logic and cost data will be helpful. Front-line healthcare workers are correctly concerned about the needs of their patients, they do not care how many pieces were delivered or at what cost. They are focused on do they have what they need to do their job.

Understanding this will help you better meet their needs.