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Stopping The Spread Of The Coronavirus At Your Grocery Checkout

CWRU scientist says shoppers should consider self-checkout at stores to help control the spread of  the coronavirus. [Artyooran / shutterstock]
A full shopping cart in a line of people checking out at a grocery store.

Even as Ohioans try to stay home to flatten the coronavirus curve, grocery stores are open and essential for food and other necessities.

A Case Western Reserve University scientist says she has observed behavior in local stores that she finds troubling. As people are doing their best to social distance and lessen the spread of the virus, she says some mistakes are being made in the process.

Ideastream host Glenn Forbes spoke with health reporter Marlene Harris-Taylor about ways people can stay safe while they shop.  

What is the biggest mistake people are making in grocery stores?

I spoke with Shanina Knighton, a nurse scientist and researcher at Case Western Reserve University, who studies infection prevention and control. Knighton said she visits local grocers regularly as a customer and she has seen cashiers and baggers wearing gloves, but they are not using them properly.  

“Gloves are a protective measure but as healthcare workers we do not fully rely on them. If you incorrectly wash your hands before you put the gloves on, you’ve contaminated the gloves already,” Knighton said.

It would be better if cashiers didn’t use gloves and just sanitized their hands in between customers, she said. The gloves give a false sense of security to the workers and the customers.The other issue is cashiers and baggers are using the same gloves over and over with many different customers. Knighton shared an incident with a bagger at a local store.

“Imagine they’re putting items in the bag for multiple customers without changing those gloves,” she said. “Those customers had to touch those items in order to put them in their cart. Now she has to put those items inside of the bag and without any glove change in-between each customer, that is increasing the risk for potential germs to transfer.”

I reached out to Giant Eagle and Heinen's to ask about staff training on hand washing and infection control. Heinen’s has not responded yet. Giant Eagle sent a statement that shared how they have stepped up sanitation efforts in their stores. They said they ask staff to sanitize their hands at least every hour and to thoroughly wash their hands at least every two hours.

But Knighton says  the handwashing and/or glove-changing should be between every customer . So what does she suggest customers do because you have to go to the store?

Knighton said she has asked cashiers to change gloves and even talked to store managers about it. She also suggests using the self-checkout lane to cut down on the number of people touching your items.

“There may need to be help for our elderly and disabled populations. For others, they may need to bag their own items,” she said.

Even in self-checkout though, Knighton warns the touch screens need to be cleaned between each customer as well.

So stores have to be super vigilant in sanitizing everything, continuously. What else can we do to protect against bringing this virus home in our shopping bags?

The coronavirus is widespread now, Knighton said. So people should assume many customers and workers walking around in the store have it. They are likely touching the produce or items on the shelf and even the shopping carts.

“I would suggest that you carry a disinfectant wipe and that you do wipe your items down when you get home or before you put them in your car. And that has been something that I’ve been doing just to make sure I’m not taking anything home. So I’m very careful to wash my produce down before putting it in the refrigerator,” she said.

Knighton said all of this advice about changing gloves and how the virus can be spread is evidence-based and information that healthcare workers have learned over the years. It’s not new information, but it’s being applied to this new coronavirus.

It is important to note, though, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still says the main way this virus is spread is through person-to-person transmission. Surface transmission, however, through touching items and on gloves, is getting more research and attention these days.

I understand that both Giant Eagle and Heinen’s have staff members who have tested positive for COVID-19?

Yes. Giant Eagle has set up a websitewhere people can see the stores where employees have tested positive.

In our area, there is one employee at the Brunswick Center Road Get Go. There are several others in the company’s Pennsylvania stores.

Heinen’s announced over the weekend it temporarily closed a store in Glenview, Illinois, for deep cleaning after a staff member tested positive for the coronavirus.

Marlene Harris-Taylor
Marlene is the director of engaged journalism at Ideastream Public Media.