CHATTANOOGA, TN. – As many essential workers in Phase 1A1 and 1A2 slowly get vaccinated, one group has found it is far down on the list of priorities when it comes to getting the vaccine.
Grocery store workers have been regarded as essential from the beginning, however, in Tennessee, they are still 5 phases away before becoming eligible.
This group is slated to receive the vaccine when Health Departments make the decision to move to Phase 3, putting them behind teachers and transportation workers in line for the vaccine.
In a recent Hamilton County Commission meeting, Health Commissioner Becky Barnes stated that the Hamilton County Health Department has no authority to change the makeup of the Phases but does have the authority to move between phases.
Grocery stores have remained open during the pandemic and many feel they should be higher on the list due to their close contact with the public on a daily basis.
Chattanooga Grocery store manager Carlos Taveras said, “We need to be closer because we deal face to face with people in the neighborhood.”
Due to the essential nature of food being readily available to the public, even during the pandemic, grocery stores have been allowed to stay open and the consistent flow of customers has kept them in business but this doesn’t come without increased health risk for the employees.
Paul del Carmen, owner of Asian Foods & Gifts in North Chattanooga, said, “If we are stronger, we can implement our service better, and we don’t have to worry about our health as much.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does suggest moving grocery stores up in the Phase List.
The CDC recommends putting grocery store workers in Phase 1b (Frontline Essential Workers).
This is the same designation CDC applies to fire fighters, police officers, corrections officers, food and agricultural workers, Postal Service workers, manufacturing workers, public transit workers, and those who work in the education sector (teachers, and support staff), as well as daycare workers.
A recent Harvard study shows Grocery store work puts employees at serious risk for infection, particularly those who have to interact with customers.
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 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.
However, despite the CDC study, the recommendations on the state-level for inclusion in a specific Phase are “based on current infection rates and current death rates among those types of workers,” said Dr. Davey Smith, who heads the infectious disease department at the University of California San Diego.
“It’s also very locally dependent, like with grocery stores in California, workers might be more protected than grocery workers in Tennessee, or vice versa,” Smith said.
Smith states that for some states that means there will be a wait as of now, but that it could shift as new data emerges.
In neighboring Georgia, grocery store workers do fall in Phase 1B, like the CDC is recommending.
On Monday, January 4th, the North Georgia Health District stated that they are currently in Phase 1A, which will include adults 65 and older starting Monday, Jan. 11th.
In Georgia, essential workers in Phase 1B may not have to wait much longer to get vaccinated. Their turn could be just weeks away.
While in Tennessee, the wait could be months.