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Senior shopping hours could increase coronavirus risk. Here’s how to protect yourself and still get your groceries | COMMENTARY

Patrick Tidmore, a senior citizen, shops for produce an hour earlier than the general public at Gus's Community Market, Friday, March 27, 2020, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Patrick Tidmore, a senior citizen, shops for produce an hour earlier than the general public at Gus's Community Market, Friday, March 27, 2020, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Ben Margot) (Ben Margot/AP)

Recently, The Baltimore Sun reported on local grocers opening early and dedicating specific business hours to the shopping needs of customers who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus, including older adults and the immunocompromised. Many older Baltimoreans reported feeling frustrated and unsafe during these “senior hours” because they have attracted crowds. We share their concerns.

The idea behind “senior hours” is sensible: Allow those at greatest risk of contracting the novel coronavirus to shop in freshly cleaned, well-stocked, uncrowded stores. The reality is somewhat different. There is no guarantee that people shopping during a “senior hour” are uninfected. People infected with coronavirus may be asymptomatic for between two and 14 days. If we all limit our contact with others, we lessen our chances of unknowingly spreading or contracting the virus. That’s why all of us should be practicing social distancing and these precautions are even more important for older adults and people with chronic medical conditions.

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“Senior hours” place at-risk people in an enclosed space with no guarantee of protection from potentially infected individuals. Some of these “senior hours” have attracted crowds, possibly putting people at even greater risk for contracting coronavirus than they would be during normal store hours.

Right now, the safest thing that older adults can do is avoid public spaces. If possible, that means even staying away from the grocery store. Fortunately, there are many viable alternatives to in-person grocery shopping. Here are four:

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  1. If you are older or immunocompromised, the simplest grocery shopping solution is to ask younger friends, family members or neighbors to purchase and deliver your groceries. Try to make your grocery list as specific as possible (for example, write “half gallon of 2% milk of any brand” rather than “milk”). Be available by phone while the person is shopping in case they have questions. If possible, ask the person to wipe down containers and leave the grocery items on your doorstep rather than bringing them inside. If you do interact, be sure to stay at least 6 feet apart from each other. The person getting groceries should plan to do your shopping and theirs at the same time to support social distancing by avoiding extra trips.
  2. Another option is to use an online grocery delivery service. For example, Instacart is a website available in Baltimore that allows you to view, select and pay for items from multiple local grocery stores without ever leaving your home. You can indicate preferences like whether or not you would like a replacement if your preferred brand is out of stock. Amazon Fresh, Walmart and Peapod offer similar services.
  3. Many of our local grocery stores, including places like Target and Harris Teeter, offer a curbside pick-up option. You order online, a staff person shops and fills your bags, and then meets you at your car with the items when you pull up.
  4. Now is also a great time to try a meal delivery service. Companies like Blue Apron and Sun Basket will mail you recipes along with the fresh ingredients required to make them. Many of these companies are offering discounted trials right now. If you are concerned about cost, consider inquiring about a service like Meals on Wheels.

It’s important to remember that these solutions not only protect the person who stays home, but also limit the total number of people in public places which protects everyone. If these options aren’t logistically or financially feasible for you and you do need to go to a store, be sure to stay 6 feet away from others while shopping. Try to limit the amount of time that you spend in the grocery store. Wash your hands before and after your shopping trip. Wipe down your cart handle when you arrive at the store and wipe down packaging on grocery items when you get home.

For some older and immunocompromised people, the logistics of getting groceries is far from the only food-related stressor right now. Many Baltimore residents face food insecurity challenges all the time, and those challenges are exacerbated during a public health crisis.

Food distribution sites have been established throughout the city and are available to any older person who is worried about affording or accessing food. The Baltimore City Council has developed an online “asset map" that includes information about senior and youth food distribution sites. Marylanders can also call the 211 help line to ask about food distribution and other community resources.

We look forward to the day when all of us can safely congregate in grocery stores and other public spaces. Until that time, please stay home, even during senior hours.

Katherine C. McNabb (kmcnabb2@jhmi.edu), MSN, RN and Sarah LaFave (sarah.lafave@jhu.edu), MPH, RN, are graduate students at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing.

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