Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, essential workers have remained in physical workspaces to keep necessary services operational, putting themselves at risk of viral exposure in the process.
Much of the scientific research and literature on these workers has been geared towards healthcare workers and first responders, as their line of work brings them more directly in contact with infected individuals. However, a new study from Occupational and Environmental Medicine investigates the COVID-19 infection rate, transmission, and exposure risks among grocery retail employee, as well as their use of PPE, social distancing, and their perception of COVID-19’s impact on their mental health.
This cross-sectional study was conducted in May 2020 in a single grocery retail store across 104 workers in Boston, Massachusetts. Paper-based questionnaires were used to collect basic demographic information, COVID-19-related exposure information, and PPE usage information. Two validated mental health screening tools – the General Anxiety Disorder-7 (GAD-7) and the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (PHQ-9) – were used to measure for anxiety and depression, and COVID-19 tests were also conducted.
Approximately 20% of retail grocery store workers (21 workers) tested positive for COVID-19, a rate of transmission significantly higher than surrounding communities. Among infected workers, 67% of cases were asymptomatic, and 91% of positive cases held positions with significant direct customer exposure. Employees with direct customer exposure were five times more likely to test positive for COVID-19.
In regard to mental health, 24% of workers had at least mild anxiety, and employees able to practice social distancing in the workplace had a significantly lower risk of anxiety or depression. Researchers found this surprising, as it was hypothesized that increased PPE use would improve mental health concerns, but the data found this had little impact on mood.
Furthermore, confirmed COVID-19 exposure in the past 14 days and commuting to work via public transportation or shared rides was strongly associated with depressive mood.