Grocery Store Employees Face High Risker of COVID-19, What to Know

  • With the rising COVID-19 cases, it’s more important than ever to remain vigilant when heading out to face crowds for holiday shopping.
  • A new study out last month found that grocery store employees may be at higher risk for COVID-19 and may be more likely to have no symptoms.
  • To stay safe at the grocery store, use a mask and observe social distancing.

With Thanksgiving just around the corner, many Americans are getting ready for one of the biggest times for grocery stores all year.

But as crowds prepare to hit the aisles, a new study has come to light that indicates that grocery store employees may be far more likely to develop COVID-19 than the general population.

And this can put both customers and employees at risk — especially if people don’t adhere to social distancing and wear a mask.

With rising COVID-19 cases, it’s more important than ever to remain vigilant when heading out to face the crowds for holiday shopping, in order to keep your loved ones and grocery store employees within your community safe.

The recent study, published in the BMJ journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine, researched 104 employees of one grocery store in Boston, Massachusetts last spring.

For the study, each employee was tested for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. One in five (21 out of 104) workers tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, which is the equivalent of 20 percent at that time. This was much higher than the prevalence of COVID-19 in the community at that time, which was 0.9–1.3 percent.

Another surprising statistic is that 3 out of 4 of those who tested positive were asymptomatic.

Of the positive tests, 91 percent were employees who had a customer-facing role.

“This article shows that essential workers who do not work in a healthcare role can play a potentially major role in spread, and are themselves at risk of infection,” said Dr. Eric Cioe-Peña, director of global health, Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, New York.

“This is a small study, taken in a single point in time, but should raise alarm bells about protecting grocery workers working in a customer-facing role as highly susceptible to becoming infected, and potentially able to spread the infection in a community,” Cioe-Peña said.

Breaking down the facts

Dr. Waleed Javaid, director of infection prevention and control at Mount Sinai Downtown in New York, said there are several factors at play when analyzing this study that people should keep in mind when going to their own grocery store.

First, it was conducted in May, which was just before the initial peak in the state of Massachusetts, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, but it didn’t address whether or not the grocery workers tested had contracted the virus prior to the peak.

“We know people can test positive, even way after being infected,” said Javaid. “That’s not to say they weren’t infected [at the time of the study], but [the researchers] did a snapshot of infections that may not necessarily have been current infections.”

Research published by the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency has found that recovered COVID-19 patients who test positive are likely not infectious.

“This is important,” said Javaid, “because in the middle of the epidemic’s peak, different staff may have gotten infected, but at different times. Sometimes depending on the test being used, people can remain positive just because the test is detecting the broken down virus particles, and not necessarily the virus itself.”

In addition, the mask mandate had only been implemented a month prior to the testing in this study, giving the disease ample time to spread. Prior to early April, the public wasn’t required to wear masks in public places.

“I imagine if they do the same snapshot now, the numbers would be substantially lower,” said Javaid.

One of the reasons why these grocery store workers may have been symptomless is that they no longer had the active virus in their systems.

“It’s a little hard to imagine that all of [these workers] were asymptotic and never had symptoms in the first few months prior to the illness, or prior to the testing,” said Javaid. “But that does not mean that it isn’t true. We’ll need to see more of these studies to be 100 percent sure what exactly happened in that scenario.”

How to stay safe while grocery shopping during the COVID-19 pandemic

Still, it’s best to always err on the side of caution, especially when trying to navigate a global pandemic.

With so many Americans planning their holiday tables, it’s likely that crowds and grocery stores will follow.

It’s important to stay vigilant during these times in order to protect yourself, your family, and the employees who show up to work.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends for both grocery store employees and patrons:

  • Remain 6 feet apart from others.
  • Wear a cloth face covering in public settings.
  • Use the touchless payment options when available.
  • Limit face touching after exchanging money or credit cards.

The CDC also recommends specifically that grocery store employees:

  • Notify your supervisor and stay home if experiencing symptoms.
  • Follow CDC-recommended steps if you’re sick.
  • Follow CDC recommended precautions and notify your supervisor if you’re well but have a sick family member.
  • Ask customers to place cash on the counter.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces.

“We need to continue wearing masks and make sure that the grocery store we’re shopping at follows the mask and guidelines as we know them,” added Javaid. “Wearing a mask and social distancing 100 percent of the time in the presence of others is going to be critical. There is no exception to that.”

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