News Story

Media Anecdotes Galore, But Little Data On Frontline Workers Catching COVID-19

Walmart silent since early April; big New York grocer reports 0.5% rate

Frontline medical workers have been characterized in many media reports as having sacrificed their health and safety to do their jobs and serve others.

These reports almost all rely exclusively on anecdotal examples to suggest that these workers have been infected by the novel coronavirus in high numbers.

It is certain that health care workers have contracted COVID-19, and some have died. But the publicly available data to show how many is scarce.

Other industries and workplaces, such big retailers, have received similar media treatment. Many articles have raised the possibility of large outbreaks, but again, they give only anecdotal portraits of particular employees who were affected.

A Time magazine story on April 9 illustrated the device with its headline: “The Country Won’t Work Without Them. 12 Stories of People Putting Their Lives on the Line to Help Others During Coronavirus.”

On May 24, a Washington Post story focused on a Walmart employee in Massachusetts.

“By the end of April, employees at a Walmart in Quincy, Mass., were panicking: Sick colleagues kept showing up at work,” the Washington Post reported. “Other employees disappeared without explanation. The store’s longtime greeter was in the hospital and on a ventilator, dying of covid-19.”

But the meager data available from large retailers does not provide an empirical basis for more general statements.

Walmart’s only public mention of workers sickened by COVID-19 appeared in an April 9 memo written by its CEO, Doug McMillon.

“Despite being on the front lines, our overall number of known cases is tracking with the national rate of cases per capita for the general population, with less than 1% of our workforce having confirmed cases,” McMillon wrote.

Walmart employs 2.2 million people worldwide, with 1.5 million of those being in the U.S.

Wegmans is a regional supermarket chain with 101 stores, including 47 in New York, the state hardest-hit by the pandemic.

In a May 30 Wall Street Journal article, Wegmans said that just 0.5% of its workforce had contracted the novel coronavirus. The company has 50,000 employees.

Many other large retailers have not released figures on how many of their workers have been infected.

A June 16 New York Times article on one neighborhood of the Bronx focused on essential employees who continued to work in health care, construction, package delivery, security and as grocery store clerks. It noted that the neighborhood “did not have especially high rates of [COVID-19] cases per capita.”