Chances are by now your grocery store has instituted a designated hour each morning for the “vulnerable” population to shop. Vulnerable meaning the immunocompromised, the elderly, and the those who are pregnant. Target and Wal-Mart are on board with this too, one day a week. While in theory this is greatly appreciated, many people who are taking advantage of this option have been met with huge crowds and empty shelves.
As a 36-year-old with an invisible illness, Crohn’s disease, I was curious if I would be questioned or given dirty looks if I shopped during these hours. To the average person, I look healthy. I called two local grocery stores and my local Target to see if I would need a doctor’s note or a prescription bottle with my name upon entering the store. Everyone was extremely kind and said no questions would be asked and that it’s just an honor system. Still, as a young person I can’t help but assume I would be met with some eye rolls and attitude. I too was hopeful and a bit skeptical that the rest of the population would be honest and not try and to take advantage of the system.
So, after one week of isolation in my home, I strapped on one of two N95 masks my husband had lying around the house from some construction projects and a pair of surgical gloves we had on hand from when my son had Hand, Foot, and Mouth as a baby and ventured out to see just how it would be to utilize the shopping hours for the high risk. We were down to about five slices of bread and no meat, I figured shopping during this special time when the store opened would be our best chance at getting what our family needed.
Here is what surprised me
I was one of five people in the store wearing a mask. I was the only person wearing gloves. It felt like the day before Christmas when you are like a sardine walking in a slow line, aisle by aisle. The situation made me feel anxious and unsafe. I was the youngest person by far…and I’m not all that young, but it was mostly the 60+ crowd. I wasn’t questioned by employees or shoppers but feel as though my mask and gloves did the talking for me. While I was shopping, I wondered if it was more crowded than a random time of day…or if this is just how busy grocery stores are now around the clock?
The safety of shopping around other high-risk patients
I asked Dr. Neilanjan Nandi, MD, FACP, Penn Presbyterian Medical Center about whether there was any danger in putting all the high risk people together to shop, or if he felt it was safer to go first thing in the morning before all the crowds throughout the day. He said, “It may be safer to go early in the store when there are simply less absolute number of people around to contract the illness from. It is the shear number of people that ultimately contributes to the virus’ spread. Therefore, limiting the number of individuals that we come in contact with is among our best options in both preventing our own infection and slowing its spread to others.”
Dr. Nandi went on to say regarding IBD, it is patients who are on a high dose of steroids (particularly over a daily dose of 20 mg) that are of the greatest concern right now. “While good data is unavailable, the biologic class of IBD therapeutics were specifically developed to avoid the high risk of infection that steroids confer on magnitudes far greater. I encourage all IBD patients to maintain their current therapies. If on steroids, have a discussion with your primary IBD specialist about other options and of course maintain vigilant social distancing practices.”
If you are single or don’t have a choice but to do your grocery shopping, I would recommend utilizing the special hour that’s been set aside, but if you have the option to stay home and have another family member or friend do the shopping, do that. My husband has been doing all our grocery shopping and Target runs, I simply went to gain perspective and see firsthand how it would be for a young person, with a disease that isn’t visible, during these wild times. If I had been shopping without a mask and gloves on, maybe I would have been asked what I was doing there. It’s hard to say. Overall, I’m grateful businesses are recognizing the need to do all they can to try and protect those who are at greatest risk of catching COVID-19, your efforts are appreciated.
Click here for a list of major retailers offering specific accommodations for shopping.