WaPo, Slate: The grocery shortage isn't just real, it's expanding; Update: How will Klain spin it?

As Peter Allen once sang, everything old is new again … including grocery shortages. Joe Biden and Democrats initially scoffed at the idea that Americans can’t find their choices at supermarkets, but the empty shelves have become so numerous as to defy denial.

The media is starting to abandon the Democrats’ us-or-your-lyin’-eyes credibility test on the grocery-supply shortages. It’s going to get worse before it gets better, largely because of the CDC guidances on isolation over asymptomatic positives in the Omicron wave, as Slate’s Aaron Mak notes:

Grocery stores and food supply chains have been stretching themselves throughout the pandemic to keep products in stock, but the onset of omicron is now upending operations across the board. In the grocery stores themselves, outbreaks among staff are exacerbating already-existing labor shortages stemming from the Great Resignation. Bloomberg reports that cases have tripled among the staff of SpartanNash, a major grocery chain and supplier in the Midwest, over the last few weeks, with about 1 percent of its 18,000 employees testing positive. The company has still been able to fulfill orders, though there have been delays, even with lots of employees working overtime. Beyond directly infecting the workforce, the omicron variant has had some secondhand impacts on the industry’s labor. Many parents who work in grocery stores are staying home due to widespread school and daycare closures, and other employees have decided their jobs just aren’t worth the risk of exposure during this surge.

Grocers have struggled to get their hands on certain items due to similar staffing shortages up the various food supply chains they rely on, forcing them to seek out different brands or to simply leave the shelves empty. For example, Reuters reports that there’s been a spate of infections among inspectors at meat plants, who according to federal law must approve meat products before they are sold commercially. The USDA has been trying to send inspectors to staff shortage hotspots, such as Wisconsin, in response. The United Food and Commercial Workers has further noted an uptick of infections among meatpacking workers, particularly at plants that have not urged their staffs to get booster shots. And slaughterhouses have been operating at lower capacity due to short-handed crews; on Friday, the number of cattle slaughtered was down 6 percent, and the number of pigs slaughtered down 5 percent, compared to last year, according to the USDA. Altogether, these supply chain hiccups, inflation, and booming demand may lead to further increases in meat prices.

A similar story is also playing out in other food sectors, just with different types of workers and products. In a Thursday earnings call for Conagra, a major supermarket supplier that sells products like Reddi-Wip and Orville Redenbacher’s, CEO Sean Connolly predicted that omicron-induced labor outages could strain supply chains for “the next month or so.” (Sorry, popcorn lovers.) Winter storms also appear to be contributing to the problem, with road conditions making it difficult for drivers to make deliveries and consumers hoarding in case they get snowed in.

If the main variant in community transmission was still Delta, this kind of massive interruption bordering on de facto shutdown might be rational. That’s not the case, however; as the CDC reported a week ago, Omicron is now 95.4% of genomic identifications in positive COVID tests. This is still the most current genomic surveillance chart at the CDC portal:

Omicron is likely a higher proportion than even this suggest, since testing has been so limited in this Omicron wave and lots of asymptomatic transmission has taken place over the last several weeks. The Delta variants being detected are showing every evidence of being crowded out by Omicron and probably are a smaller proportion of transmissions, as Delta exposures are much more likely to result in symptomatic acute cases.

If the positives fouling the grocery supply chains are Omicron — and they are almost certainly near 100% of those cases — then the isolation is pointless. This variant will come into contact with every household eventually, regardless of workplace isolation. It’s far too transmissible to expect anything else, and we may already be largely arriving at that status. Asymptomatic people are almost zero risk to vaccinated coworkers and customers, and still very low risk to unvaccinated people. Symptomatic people should stay home anyway for their own health, but everyone else should be allowed to get to work.

That would solve most of the current grocery supply issues, but perhaps not all of them. The Washington Post also belatedly takes the empty-shelves situation seriously, while noting some of the other problems contributing to it:

It’s barely 2022 and already social media is swamped with pictures of empty grocery shelves — from cream cheese to paper towels, children’s juice boxes and cat food.

Some of the culprits for this round of shortfalls are the same as in the early days of the pandemic, and some can be chalked up to new problems bumping up against old ones.

Before we get to those problems, can we at least ask why we had to wait for social media to “swamp” its platforms with these pictures before outlets like the Post covered the story? It’s not as if this was some hidden problem. Presumably, even the Post’s editors do their own grocery shopping and could see these shortages expanding over the last several weeks:

With that said, the Post identifies three other general problems besides Omicron: supply chain snarls, more people eating at home, and winter weather. Only the weather is entirely unrelated to COVID-19, and is still a rather weak excuse. We have winter weather every year without shortages, and most of the country doesn’t travel on I-95.

The other two are clearly related to COVID and mitigation policies both past and present. The supply chain snarls are real, complex, and difficult to solve even in regional distribution terms. More people eating at home is a result of (a) income losses in previous shutdowns and current economic conditions, and (b) a fear of COVID transmission in restaurants largely stoked by Omicron-wave hysteria that is at best loosely founded. One can even add a (c), which is employee staffing shortages created by isolation guidelines that were better calculated to Alpha and Delta than Omicron. In some eateries, finding a table is easy but getting service is nearly impossible. That’s contributing to higher demand in grocery stores, with the empty shelves one of those outcomes.

Since the CDC isn’t changing those guidelines to match the reality of both far milder outcomes and already-extant massive transmission, we can expect that these shortages will continue for at least another few weeks. Time to dig out the cookbooks, get creative, and see what’s possible from what’s left, folks.

Update: Jim Geraghty delivers coup de grace to the White House spin:

On the menu today: A bit before Christmas, President Biden boasted that he had averted the supply-chain crisis: “The much-predicted crisis didn’t occur. Packages are moving. Gifts are being delivered. Shelves are not empty.” And White House chief of staff Ron Klain called the supply-chain crisis “an overhyped narrative.” But if you look at the local affiliates of the major networks, you can find a ton of stories about empty store shelves in the past week. Maybe the hashtag #BareShelvesBiden is being promoted by conservatives, but that doesn’t mean the supply-chain crisis is mythical. …

As with the border, inflation, the Afghanistan withdrawal, Covid-19, and the shortage of tests, we have to waste time convincing the administration that the country’s problems are actually real problems; the Biden team’s reflexive instinct is that any reports of problems are just right-wing propaganda. (Or perhaps someone like Klain will tell us to be appreciative because we have “high class problems.”)

Be sure to read it all. As I mentioned before, they prefer the us-or-your-lyin’-eyes strategy first, but they’re flexible.