COVID-19: Are grocery stores and pharmacies vectors for the coronavirus?

There's so much to touch and grab at the grocery store – shopping carts, freezer door handles, cardboard boxes and plastic packaging.
Such surfaces are almost unavoidable for shoppers. But they also carry a certain amount of risk in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, adding urgency to a troubling question: Have pharmacies and supermarkets become super-spreading virus vectors?
These businesses are among the few places left where people are allowed to gather, and they often get so many shoppers these days that their shelves are being picked clean.
Meanwhile, Trader Joe's is keeping shoppers up to date about store openings and closings after employees in New York, New Jersey and Maryland tested positive for COVID-19 or showed related symptoms. In northern California, a FoodMaxx store said it closed this week “for cleaning and sanitizing” after a worker tested positive for the disease and died, though the store said he hadn’t been in the store since March 6.
The recent death of a 49-year-old supermarket clerk in Italy has added to shoppers’ anxiety.
“The biggest concern about a grocery store is everyone wants to be there,” Virginia Tech epidemiologist Charlotte Baker told USA TODAY. “That means you’re closer in proximity than we’re recommending people be.”
A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that people may acquire the virus through the air and after touching contaminated objects. The same study said the virus was detectable up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel. But epidemiologists say the risk of getting infected from such surfaces is relatively low, because the virus soon decays.
“Although the virus can remain on surfaces for a while, we still don't know how long they remain infectious to people,” said Caroline Buckee, associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The bigger concern about such stores, experts say, is person-to-person transmission and being around so many people who might be carrying the virus. These stores and pharmacies have ramped up cleaning efforts and promoted social distancing between customers to minimize the risk of spreading the disease. But in practice, these efforts can vary widely between businesses, with some appearing to conduct business as usual, often because their customers aren’t taking their own precautions.
"There’s still so much we don’t (know) about this virus, including whether people with no symptoms can spread infection," said an e-mail from Tom Frieden, former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and current head of the nonprofit Resolve to Save Lives. He says that as long as sick people stay home, and healthy people stay 6 feet away from others and wash their hands before touching their face, risk should be minimal.
The risk still can vary by chain and location.

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