One in Five Grocery Store Employees Had COVID-19, Most Didn’t Know

Many people who are at higher risk of becoming seriously ill if infected with COVID-19 have been extremely cautious over the last seven months. At-risk people have socially distanced from others, worn masks, washed their hands, skipped events and done more than many others to protect themselves. One thing many people can’t avoid is grocery shopping. But, a new study shows that the grocery store may bring you in close contact with infected people.

According to the study, 20 percent of 104 grocery store employees tested positive for COVID-19. The employees all worked in one store, and the people who worked with customers were five times more likely to be positive than people who worked behind the scenes. The infection rate in the store was much higher than the rate in the general area.

People who work in stores can’t practice social distancing. Cashiers are close to people, no matter how hard they try. While 91 percent said they wore masks, masks protect you from spreading the virus, not catching it. Worry about COVID-19 has impacted essential workers. Almost a quarter of workers who interact with customers have reported feeling anxiety and depression.

And, 75 percent of the people who were positive had no symptoms. That means that, in addition to the grocery store employees being in danger of becoming ill, they are also at risk of spreading it. People who don’t realize they are sick will continue to go to work. While masks are highly effective at slowing the spread, it’s still worrying to know that 20 percent of the people in the building may be infected. And, 91 percent said they were wearing masks — not 100. Being in a closed environment with sick people isn’t ever going to be completely safe for you, even when they are masked.

This is definitely very alarming as it means that retail grocery store employees are exposed to customers and sort of serve as a middleman for the virus — like a super spreader almost.” said Dr. Justin Yang, one of the study authors.

The grocery store employees also go home to their families and spread it that way, moving it out of the store and into outside groups. Some live with extended family, including people who are older or might be at higher risk.

Explaining why he wanted to do the research, he said, “We did the study because a lot of emphasis during the initial months of COVID were put on healthcare workers, but not other essential workers.”

The area where the study was done in Massachusetts didn’t have a mask mandate when the information was gathered. If your area requires masks in stores, you might not have the same problem. But, if you don’t, your supermarket trip might be a little riskier than you realized.

I do think for stores and states with mask mandate, we most likely would not see this kind of numbers. But for stores and states without a mask mandate, this scenario could very well happen in other stores as well,” said Dr. Yang.

All of this underscores the importance of social distancing and taking care of ourselves. If your stores have mask rules in effect, your area is most likely safer. But, if you are at higher risk, it might be worth asking people you know who are at low risk if they could pick up your groceries for you. Here in San Diego, several supermarket chains have waived their usual fee for curbside pickup. Using the app, you can order what you want, schedule a time and an employee put it in the trunk of your car without you ever coming in contact with anyone.

That protects you. It also protects the worker. With so many of us infected and unaware, it’s essential to take care of one another. COVID-19 is entirely asymptomatic in many people. But in others, it can be deadly. Staying uninfected means not only protecting yourself but also protecting everyone in your community!

Banner image: Nielson Caetano-Salmeron via Unsplash  
November 02, 2020
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