- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 7, 2020

The coronavirus outbreak has taken the lives of at least 72 workers among the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union’s 1.3 million members in supermarkets, pharmacies, meatpacking plants and other essential businesses that have remained open during the crisis, according to the union.

The death toll represents a per capita fatality rate of roughly 5 per 100,000 UFCW workers in the U.S. and Canada. The rate is lower than that of the general population even though these front-line workers did not benefit until mid-April from widespread orders for people to wear masks in public and take other robust safety measures.

The per capita COVID-19 fatality rate for the U.S. is about 22 per 100,000.

The data from UFCW, which was compiled from the union’s internal reports, does not include the total number of confirmed cases or claim to be a definitive count of fatalities.

The union members also represent only a share of the U.S. grocery store workforce, which is estimated at 2.99 million.

The union said 5,322 of its members have been directly affected by the pandemic, including workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 or have missed work because they are ordered to self-quarantine, are awaiting test results, have been hospitalized or are symptomatic.

UFCW refused to provide additional information requested by The Washington Times.

The union’s tally, however, provides a glimpse into the mysterious and unpredictable nature of the disease, which has prompted unprecedented orders to close businesses and shelter in place.

David W. Hutton, a health management and policy professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, questioned the accuracy of the union’s fatality count but said he would not be surprised by lower mortality rates for UFCW workers than the general U.S. population.

Relatively young and healthy workers in grocery stores are more likely to beat the respiratory disease, Mr. Hutton said.

“Although there is a lot we don’t know, it’s pretty clear that the risk of developing severe symptoms and dying is higher in the elderly and those with comorbidities,” he said, referring to underlying conditions such as diabetes and heart disease that tend to contribute to COVID-19 deaths.

He also said people 65 and older account for about 80% of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S.

Indeed, the median age of grocery store workers is 36.5, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In hard-hit New York, which has attributed more than 20,000 deaths to COVID-19, people ages 30 to 39 accounted for 281 fatalities, or 1.4% of the total.

The bureau reported similar median ages for workers in other sectors that have been ordered closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including shoe stores (26), clothing stores (32), sporting goods and toy stores (34), and bookstores (37).

Workers tend to be older in jewelry stores (48), flower shops (51.6) and manufacturing jobs (44).

The median age of workers in animal slaughtering and processing is 40, according to the bureau.

Meatpackers, including UFCW members, have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic.

As of Tuesday, at least 10,800 meatpacking workers had tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 167 plants had reported infections. At least 45 workers at 24 plants had died from COVID-19, according to data compiled by the nonprofit Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

Outbreaks have shut down at least 38 meatpacking plants at some point since the onset of the pandemic.

Grocery stores also have reported outbreaks but not to the extent of meatpacking plants, although grocery workers come into close contact with steady streams of customers.

Several Walmart supercenters in Massachusetts closed temporarily because workers tested positive for the virus. A 69-year-old woman who worked at a store in Quincy died this week from COVID-19.

In late April, a Walmart supercenter in Aurora, Colorado, shut down after a 72-year-old worker, her 63-year-old husband and a 69-year-old security contractor at the store died from COVID-19.

The industry has about 3 million employees in nearly 40,000 stores in the U.S., including supermarkets, traditional grocers and warehouse stores such as Sam’s Club and Costco, most of which stayed open during lockdowns.

Many supermarket chains implemented safety measures in late March, including installing clear plastic barriers between cashiers and customers. Unions have criticized employers for moving too slowly to require workers to wear masks and gloves or to impose stricter social distancing rules on customers.

A UFCW spokeswoman said the safety of workers must come first in every sector and industry.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have worked closely with employers to ensure that they implement strong safety standards. While many employers have taken important initial steps, much more must be done by both companies and elected leaders at the state and national level to further strengthen safety in these plants and keep our country’s food supply secure during this public health crisis,” the UFCW’s Cynthia Montes said in an email to The Times.

So far, 30 states are reopening or planning to soon allow more businesses to reopen, but the nation’s economy remains in a shambles.

More than 30 million Americans have lost their jobs, and the unemployment rate is approaching levels on par with the Great Depression.

The U.S. has more than 1.2 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in a population of around 330 million. More than 73,000 deaths have been attributed to the disease, and more than 189,900 people have recovered.

New York University economics professor Paul Romer said lifting the lockdown and allowing the virus to spread unchecked could result in 1 million deaths, but he acknowledged that stay-at-home orders have not stamped out the coronavirus while devastating the economy.

“The problem right now is we don’t know who’s infected, so we’re trying to contain and isolate and limit the mobility of as many people as possible, and this is really causing enormous loss,” he said on a webcast about reopening the economy hosted by Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican.

“We’re facing $500 billion a month in lost economic activity by containing people, and the prospect of containing people even more … by this method is just not going to be acceptable to people. So the alternative path is to figure out who is infected and just contain, isolate them.”

• Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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