When we sing the praises of frontline workers—the doctors, nurses, and other medical teams that are tackling the COVID crisis head on—we often forget others that put their lives at risk daily for the sake of their jobs. As one study published in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine reveals, grocery store clerks face a shockingly high risk of COVID infection—which could in turn put customers at risk while shopping. As the study revealed, grocery workers at one store were 20 times more likely to be infected than the general population, and those with customer facing jobs were five times more likely to be infected than their colleagues in other positions.
The study centered on one grocery store in Boston, Massachusetts with 104 employees. In May of this year, the entire team was subjected to coronavirus tests, as part of a mandatory testing policy issued by the city. “One in five (21 out of 104) workers tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, indicating a prevalence of 20 percent at that point in time. This was significantly higher than the prevalence of the infection in the local community at the time: 0.9-1.3 percent,” the study explains.
Perhaps even more disturbingly, 76 percent of these cases were completely asymptomatic, presenting with no known symptoms of COVID. Among those who tested positive, 91 percent had a customer facing role, compared with 59 percent of those employees who tested negative.
“This is the first study to demonstrate the significant asymptomatic infection rate, exposure risks, and associated psychological distress of grocery retail essential workers during the pandemic,” the researchers said. Of course, beyond the harrowing impact on the grocery store workers themselves, these findings also demonstrate a significant COVID risk to the more general population. “Once essential workers are infected with SARS-CoV-2, they may become a significant transmission source for the community they serve,” the study notes.
So the next time you shop at the grocery store, practice extreme COVID precautions: practice social distancing, touch as little as possible, and be sure to wear a mask. And for goodness’ sake, be kind and patient with your checkout clerk—their day is stressful enough already. Read on for more places that could be spreading COVID, and for more on minimizing your risk, check out Your Risk of Catching COVID at Home Is This High.
It’s not just grocery stores that run a high risk of spreading COVID. “The highest risk environments would be indoors with poor air/HVAC systems, with an inability to maintain 6-foot spacing accompanied by loud talking or yelling without everyone wearing a mask,” Jeff Pothof, MD, the chief quality officer at UW Health in Madison, Wisconsin, told Healthline. “The most common example would be a crowded bar with people having to speak loudly because of the noise and either unmasked or frequently removing the mask to eat or drink.”
While going to your church, temple or mosque may be more justifiable than hitting your local bar, the fact remains that any gathering of 10 or more people is considered a COVID risk by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). These spaces are often poorly ventilated and designed to draw large crowds. If you do decide to practice your faith in person, be sure to check out the CDC’s guidelines for doing so, or opt for an outdoor service where you can practice social distancing. And for more on the spread of COVID, check out 10 States That Are Showing Serious Signs of Another Lockdown.
While many theaters remain closed as a result of COVID, some cinemas have already begun to reopen despite record breaking case counts across the country. Unfortunately, many theaters allow the removal of masks while patrons are seated or eating. “You’d have to be nuts” not to wear a mask in a movie theater, Robert Lahita, MD, chairman of medicine at St. Joseph’s Health in New Jersey told Vulture. “You’re with a group of strangers. Unless you’re sitting 20 or 30 feet from the other person, you run the risk of being infected. There’s no question about it. You know how the air is in a theater: It’s not circulated very well. If you don’t wear a mask, you take your chances.”
While public transportation is necessary for many people, the risks are inherent. “Let’s face it,” Simon Clark, MD, associate professor of microbiology at the University of Reading told Bloomberg. “With public transport, it’s an aluminum can that people are packed into, whatever the mode. The key question is: How densely are people packed in together? That’s basically it. The longer they are exposed to one another, the greater the risk. The more densely packed in they are, the greater the risk. It doesn’t particularly matter if you are in a bus or a train.” And for more on the spread of COVID, check out Where COVID Traveled After One Superspreader Event.