What Is the Risk of Getting COVID-19 While Shopping?

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Experts are learning more about the risk of shopping and COVID-19. Alena Paulus/Getty Images
  • Cities like El Paso, Texas, are experiencing sharp increases in COVID-19 cases.
  • Some people are experiencing “COVID fatigue.” They’re exhausted from practicing measures to prevent infection.
  • One expert says people respond to stress differently “and disaster stress is no different.”
  • There are common sense ways to reduce your risk of infection while shopping in stores.

The holiday season has officially begun, and cities like El Paso, Texas, are reeling from a one-two punch of already surging COVID-19 rates and new infections, possibly due to widespread travel over Thanksgiving.

El Paso Mayor Dee Margo places the blame on “COVID fatigue,” reported CBS Dallas-Fort Worth.

“I think people just… the consensus is people just had ‘COVID fatigue’ and they let down. As Dr. [Deborah] Birx said, you got to wear the mask and you’ve got to maintain the distancing and you’ve got to avoid the crowds,” Margo told “Face the Nation” on Sunday. He confirmed that contact tracing found that “55 percent of the positives were coming from shopping at large retailers, what we’d term as the big-box stores.”

Experts say “COVID fatigue” is a very real problem.

“’COVID fatigue’ is the idea that we have been ‘cooped up’ and careful for such a long period of time that it is starting to feel particularly draining, daunting, and isolating to the point that some people may let their guard down,” Brittany LeMonda, PhD, senior neuropsychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, told Healthline.

According to LeMonda, disaster stress is how individuals respond to an unusually challenging or noxious situation.

“Everyone responds differently to stress in general, and disaster stress is no different,” she said. “People may experience stress in the form of physical or somatic symptoms, headaches, changes in sleep patterns, GI [gastrointestinal] distress. Others may experience emotional and cognitive symptoms, sadness, fear, difficulties concentrating.”

LeMonda explained that while some people may take their stress out on others by becoming easily angered or agitated, “Some people engage in risky behaviors, like excessive drinking, drug use, or gambling to help cope with stress.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says those most at risk for disaster stress include teens and individuals at high risk of severe illness, like seniors and people with underlying medical conditions.

We know being in crowded places can increase our chances of getting COVID-19, but just how risky is shopping during the current surge in coronavirus infections?

According to Dr. David Hirschwerk, an attending infectious diseases physician at Northwell Health in Manhasset, New York, it depends.

He explained that there are several factors that must be considered:

  • whether the shopping is indoors or outdoors, with outdoors being safer
  • the number of people shopping — fewer means it’s easier to maintain social (physical) distancing
  • how long you’ll take — the faster you’re done, the better
  • COVID-19 positivity rate in the local community

“But since most communities in the country are experiencing surging rates, the risk of indoor shopping is concerning and real,” warned Hirschwerk.

You’ve decided to visit a store rather than shop online, but there are common sense ways to reduce your risk of infection.

“First of all, no activity where many individuals are congregating would be deemed fully safe at this point in the pandemic with climbing COVID rates,” cautioned Hirschwerk.

However, anyone who does choose to shop in person should be properly masked over the nose and mouth, “with the observation that other shoppers and workers are doing the same, and are able to physically distance at least 6 to 8 feet.”

He added that while product packaging doesn’t present a significant risk, in any store where many people are handling merchandise, it is good practice to wash your hands after handling items.

“By far, the most concern is the air that we all share,” said Hirschwerk. “This shared air is greatest when we are close to one another, and when we are indoors with suboptimal ventilation.”

A recent study finds that the risk of coronavirus infection in a grocery store is up to two times higher in low-income neighborhoods compared with high-income areas.

Stanford University researchers analyzed population movements, using the cellphone data from almost 100 million people in 10 major cities across the country to find rising infection rates could be traced to certain “places of interest,” which were typically crowded businesses located in low-income neighborhoods.

According to researchers, these spaces tended to be smaller and contain more people per square foot, which they say could explain why low-income neighborhoods were some of the first, and most affected, during the pandemic.

“Across all metro areas, individuals from CBGs [census block groups] in the bottom decile for income had a substantially higher likelihood of being infected by the end of the simulation, even though all individuals began with equal likelihoods of infection,” the study authors concluded.

LeMonda offered some specific coping skills we can all use to relieve the stress associated with living through a pandemic.

  • Practice self-awareness. “Am I coping in a healthy or unhealthy manner? This can be hard as sometimes we are not the best judges of ourselves, but really reflecting on how we have been managing our daily stress is important.”
  • Be kind to yourself. “If you have a bad [day] that is OK. Try to focus on ways to improve the next day rather than harp on the negative.”
  • Plan things that will bring you joy. “Even if they are modified in certain ways — Zoom holiday parties, small outdoor gatherings, walks, at-home exercise classes, and so forth.”

LeMonda added it’s also important to give yourself some “alone time,” particularly if you’re a parent, to maintain a healthy daily routine that includes exercise, and to get enough sleep.

Finally, she recommended, “Reach out to others — you will realize you are not alone.”

Cities like El Paso, Texas, are experiencing sharp spikes in COVID-19 cases, and it may be because people are exhausted from practicing measures to prevent infection, making them less likely to practice pandemic safety measures.

Experts say that we’re at risk of both “COVID fatigue” and disaster stress, due to the ongoing health emergency, and that makes it important to develop healthy habits to cope.

Experts add that if you plan on in-person shopping during the current infection surge, it’s essential to wear your mask properly, wash hands after handling items, avoid crowded areas, and maintain appropriate physical distancing.

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