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An Alarming Number of Grocery Store Workers Went To Work With COVID, Study Says

And many had no symptoms whatsoever, the researchers found.
trader joes cashier in face mask

The next time you go to the grocery store, you might want to consider thanking the checkout person for their service. At the same time, you'll want to make sure you're doing so while wearing a mask and standing at a healthy social distance, as a new study published in the scientific journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine suggests the COVID-19 virus hit these frontline workers especially hard.

To address what they characterize as a knowledge gap regarding how COVID-19 has impacted retail workers, the study, led by Justin Yang, M.D., of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, chose a single grocery store in the Boston, Massachusetts area and tested its employees for COVID using nasal swabs. The researchers then spent several days assessing the employees' health history, anxiety levels, and perceptions about COVID

Dr. Yang's team found that out of the 104 grocery store workers, 21 tested positive (20%) for COVID-19. Of those who tested positive, 91 percent had a job that involved direct interaction with customers, and 76 percent showed no symptoms (whereas only 40% of the general population are asymptomatic when infected). (For more on how the pandemic has affected grocery shopping, see these 8 Grocery Items That May Soon Be In Short Supply.)

According to the scientists' data, those grocery store workers with direct exposure to customers were five times more likely to test positive than their back-office colleagues. In addition, 24 of the workers were found to have anxiety. Eight were found to have depression. The study authors noted that those whose jobs permitted them to practice social distancing were significantly less affected by anxiety and depression than their colleagues.

Scientists had already known that essential workers, including grocery store employees, are at an increased risk for the SARS-CoV-2 infection. They also knew that those workers are at an increased risk of spreading the virus to their friends, families, and communities. What the scientists did not know until reviewing the numbers was exactly how bad the infection rate can be.

While the study is limited by the small number of test subjects, among other things, the authors believe that the findings support "policy recommendations that employers and government officials should take actions on implementing preventive strategies" to ensure the health and safety of essential workers.

In the meantime, here are 10 things you can do to make it safer for your local grocery store's employees, not to mention yourself. And here is the one thing you absolutely need to stop doing at the grocery store.

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Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a culture and food writer. Read more