Despite large-scale optimism that the availability of vaccines will end or at least greatly curtail the pandemic, many retailers and suppliers say that the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitation protocols hasn’t diminished, and is, in fact, more critical now than in 2020.
“With the newly discovered ‘variant’ strains of COVID-19, as well as the expanding ‘COVID-19 fatigue,’ it is more important than ever to continually reinforce the policies and procedures that have been established for operating under COVID-19 protocols,” asserts Michael Stigers, CEO of Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Cub Foods. “All of the learned protocols and practices will be in place for the foreseeable future. This is a multiyear, if not a multigenerational, experience.”
Stigers may be right about that “multigenerational experience.”
While the United States has been vaccinating nearly 1 million people a day, new, more contagious strains of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 have led to more global surges in cases. In late January, one of the vaccine makers, Moderna, said that it was “not sure” whether its vaccine would be able to fight off all of the new strains, and revealed that it would test an additional booster dose of its vaccine (which would now require three shots instead of two) to strengthen the immune response against emerging strains, especially the South African variant.
Shortly before that development, Europe, which has been a pandemic harbinger, began to tighten PPE and sanitation regulations in public spaces, workplaces and retail stores, in the hope of slowing the spread of the new strains.
Germany has made it mandatory for people riding public transit or shopping in supermarkets to wear medical-style masks, either N95 respirators or surgical masks. France is discouraging the use of cloth and homemade masks, arguing that they may not offer sufficient protection against the more highly transmissible coronavirus variants. In the United States, White House adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci is now recommending that Americans upgrade their PPE game by double-masking.
“If you have a physical covering with one layer, you put another layer on; it just makes common sense that it likely would be more effective,” Fauci told the “Today” show. “That’s the reason why you see people either double masking or doing a version of an N95.”
According to Fauci, wearing a surgical mask underneath a cloth mask provides maximum protection because the surgical mask acts as a filter and the cloth adds an additional layer and helps with fit. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has not yet recommended double-masking in the United States, the practice is becoming more popular among American consumers, meaning that shoppers will come to expect grocery employees to double-mask also.
This is just one way that the PPE and sanitation standards are changing rapidly in the grocery channel. Another area of concern for retailers is surfaces. While the CDC said in November that contaminated surfaces aren’t the main way that the virus spreads, retail store surfaces remain favorable environments for transmission. Crucially, metallic surfaces can retain live viruses for longer than those of other materials.
Retailers will need to stay ahead of what’s next in the crisis by taking ever more innovative approaches to address these challenges, especially if the new, more contagious variants of the virus become the dominant strains infecting Americans.
Problems With PPE
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