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COVID-19 pandemic: Grocery store workers face accelerated risk of infection, study finds

November 16, 2020

Boston — Grocery store workers who interact with customers may be five times more likely to contract COVID-19 than their colleagues who don’t have direct contact with customers, results of a recent study led by researchers from Harvard University show.

The researchers analyzed 104 employees of a Boston grocery store who underwent COVID-19 testing in May as part of a citywide mandate. They found that 20% of the workers tested positive and, in addition to the accelerated risk of coronavirus infection faced by workers in customer-centric roles, 76% presented as asymptomatic.

Additionally, 24% of the 99 workers who filled out a related mental health questionnaire experienced at least mild anxiety associated with work, with 46% of this group reporting they were able to consistently practice physical distancing on the job. Among respondents who didn’t feel anxious, 76% indicated they were able to maintain physical distancing.

“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 in an Oct. 29 press release. “Once essential workers are infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus that causes COVID-19), they may become a significant transmission source for the community they serve.”

In April, the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries issued guidance aimed at helping grocery story employers protect workers from contracting and potentially spreading COVID-19.

Among the strategies:

  • Limit the number of customers allowed inside the store.
  • Require workers to remain at least 6 feet away from co-workers and customers.
  • Use temporary 6-foot floor markings.
  • Designate workers to monitor and facilitate physical distancing in checkout lines.
  • Install hand-sanitizer stations near entrances and key locations. Also, require frequent employee handwashing – especially when arriving at work and after eating, taking breaks, using tobacco products or handling money.

The study was published online Oct. 30 in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine.