FAIRFIELD — Everybody’s Whole Foods employee Samantha Williams said if grocery store workers weren’t here, the community would “be up s—— creek without a paddle.”
Grocery store employees have been on the front lines throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, providing an essential service that must be done in-person. However, they are not eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine ahead of others.
Employees of grocery stores are classified as part of the general public, Jefferson County Public Health Administrator Christine Estle said, and are, therefore, not currently specified as able to get the vaccine before the rest of the population. Iowa is currently in Phase 1B of vaccine rollout, which includes people over the age of 65, first responders and K-12 educators.
Everybody’s Whole Foods co-owner Paul Praither said business has been going pretty well throughout the pandemic, with delivery and pickup grocery orders increasing quite a bit. They require masks for both staff and customers, have put up plastic partitions at cashier stations and sanitize the store regularly.
The organic and natural foods store hasn’t seen any cases of COVID-19 among staff, though the worry still is there. Praither said though most customers have been understanding of the store’s requirements, but they have been made to “throw out” some customers who refuse to wear a mask.
“We’re facing people every day, I just don’t quite understand why [we aren’t able to get the vaccine],” Praither said.
Paul Maiers, who has worked at Everybody’s Whole Foods for 16 years, takes zinc and vitamins D3 and C every day to keep his immune system strong. He and other employees have been pushed so hard, he said, and they’ve worried about the stress and exhaustion weakening their immune system.
Working in a job that is so exposed to the public, Maiers said he doesn’t understand why they aren’t considered essential enough to society to be eligible to receive a vaccine.
“I find it very discomforting, knowing I have to wait for a shot when there’s other people that can get a shot,” Maiers said.
Estle said Jefferson County Public Health has fielded calls from grocery store workers asking if they’re able to get a vaccine, and have told them that their job doesn’t qualify them to receive one. With decreased numbers of vaccine rollout affecting whether counties can even vaccinate those eligible, Estle said it’s understandable why grocery store workers can’t receive the vaccine right now, but it’s still hard.
“When you look at Iowa, we have Fareway, Hy-Vee, Walmart, Target, all of these places with front-line workers,” Estle said. “That’s a huge demographic of our populations that don’t meet criteria anywhere.”
Williams takes immune care products along with an anti-viral as she goes through chemo treatments, and as the buyer for the supplements department of Everybody’s Whole Foods, she said it was hard to even stock the department sometimes. She said the store has been short-handed and employees have been stressed during the pandemic.
While she believes teachers and other groups should be receiving the vaccine right now, Williams said grocery store workers should be next.
“You can’t shut these stores down; all this food would spoil, no one would be able to get their groceries,” Williams said. “It’s not like you can go in the backyard and pick out your dinner.”