Grocery workers are likely at greater risk of infection with the new coronavirus, a new study shows.
Not only that, but because a high percentage of them have no symptoms when they are infected, they could become sources of future spread, the researchers said.
For the study, Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health scientists studied the test results of workers at a single grocery store in Boston. One in five workers (20%) tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, and three-quarters of those with the virus had no symptoms.
These essential workers could be an important reservoir of infection, the investigators said. “Once essential workers are infected with SARS-CoV-2, they may become a significant transmission source for the community they serve,” the researchers explained.
The percentage of those infected was much higher than the virus’s prevalence in the local community, which was 0.9% to 1.3% at that time. The grocery workers who had customer-facing jobs were five times more likely to test positive, the findings showed.
The study was published this week in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The grocery workers had the coronavirus tests in May as part of a mandatory testing policy in Boston.
The workers also answered questions about symptoms and exposures, and completed detailed questionnaires about their lifestyles, medical and employment histories, working patterns, role at the store, commuting to and from work, and the protective measures they were able to take against infection at work. Most also answered questionnaires focusing on anxiety and depression.
The study was small and specific to the one location, the researchers cautioned.
“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,” Justin Yang and colleagues said in a journal news release.
About one in four of the 99 employees who completed the mental health questions reported feeling at least mild anxiety. About half of those respondents weren’t able to consistently practice social distancing at work. Those who were able to practice social distancing tended to be less anxious, according to the report.
Eight of the employees were mildly depressed. They were less likely to practice social distancing at work and relied on shared rides or public transportation. Those who drove their own car, walked or biked were far less likely to report depression.
“Our significant mental health finding calls for action in providing comprehensive employee assistance services to help essential workers cope with the psychological distress during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the study authors said.
The researchers also recommended that employers and government officials implement routine COVID-19 employee testing, and strategies to reduce contact.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tips for preventing COVID-19 in the workplace.
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These workers likely became a “significant transmission source” for Covid-19 without even knowing it because most in the study were asymptomatic.
The analysis, published Thursday in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, is the first to demonstrate the significant asymptomatic infection rate, exposure risks and psychological distress grocery workers have felt during the pandemic.
In the study, 20% of the 104 grocery workers tested at a store in Boston in May had positive nasal swab tests.
This was a significantly higher rate of infection than what was seen in the surrounding communities, the researchers said. Workers who dealt with customers were five times as likely to test positive for Covid-19 as colleagues in other positions.
But three out of four of those who tested positive had no symptoms.
Workers in the study had tried to take precautions. Nearly all, 91%, said they wore a face mask at work and 77% said they also wore masks outside of work. Yet only about 66% said they were able to practice social distancing consistently on the job.
This inability to social distance had an emotional, as well as a physical impact. Nearly a quarter of the people in customer service jobs said they had problems with anxiety and depression compared to 8% of workers who did not have to interact with customers. Employees who commuted to work by bike, car or by walking were less likely to experience depression than those who used public transportation, the study found.
“If you are in an environment when you’re literally in front of a customer, you can’t be more than six feet and that is really stressful for essential employees,” Yang said.
At least 108 grocery workers have died and more than 16,300 have been infected or exposed to Covid-19, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, or UFCW, said Thursday. The union represents 1.3 million employees.
Yang said he hopes this study prompts the government and store owners to provide better guidance, routine testing and protection for grocery store workers.
There has been a national movement to designate grocery workers as first responders which would give them priority access to testing and personal protective equipment.