Among the 23 new COVID-19 outbreaks identified by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment this week were metro Denver branches of King Soopers and Costco. While the CDPHE doesn't typically include addresses in outbreak studies, Westword learned the specific locations, and one is arguably the most iconic grocery store in Denver: the King Soopers at 1155 East Ninth Avenue. Eight positive novel coronavirus cases are linked to that site.
The Costco in question is at 1471 South Havana Street in Aurora; six positive coronavirus cases are tied to that outlet.
How were the outbreaks identified, and what's been done to keep employees and customers safe while both stores remain open? Representatives of the local public-health agencies tasked with this duty take us through the process.
The Denver Department of Public Health and Environment "immediately responded upon being notified of several positive COVID-19 cases at King Soopers on May 9," notes Heather Burke, a spokesperson with the city's Joint Information Center. "Emails and phone calls were exchanged with the store manager that day to discuss employee schedules, what King Soopers had already implemented well before (as far as disease prevention protocols and procedures), and next steps."
That day, Burke continues, the DDPHE issued an order mandating that the store take the following actions:
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• Screen all employees at the beginning and end of each shift for symptoms of communicable illness.
• Ensure that all employees are wearing face coverings when at work.
• Closely monitor ALL employees during their shift for the onset of symptoms of COVID-19 and ensure that all appropriate good hygienic practices (hand washing, cleaning and sanitizing of high-touch point surfaces and objects, etc.) are being followed by employees throughout their shift.
• Exclude from work any employees exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 until they are fever-free (without medication) for 72 hours AND 7 days have passed since their first symptom.
• Disinfect the entire facility.
• Provide a line list of confirmed cases/report new cases within 24 hours
Many of these actions had already been implemented at the store, Burke notes, adding that the facility is disinfected nightly. Management embarked on another cleaning immediately after receiving the order and also "reduced store hours, added social distancing floor signs/floor tape for all register lines, implemented entrance lines and service line areas, implemented electronic monitoring to help identify if there are too many people in the store and increased sanitizing of commonly touched surfaces."
The investigation remains active, but Burke points out that "DDPHE conducted a site visit on May 11 to assess compliance of the orders at the time of the inspection." The analysis determined that the store could remain open; "communication between the facility and DDPHE is currently ongoing," she says.
As for the Aurora Costco, Leslee Warren, a communicable-disease epidemiologist with the Tri-County Health Department, reveals that COVID-19 concerns at the retailer "were kind of a slow burn. They had what I would describe as a consistent reporting of positive cases basically since the end of March. There weren't a huge surge of cases. It was more like a trickle."
That changed on May 6 through what has become the department's "routine case-investigation method," Warren continues. "We identified a positive case — someone working at the Costco location — and flagged it, then followed it up with Costco. We do routine disease control even with facilities that might have just one case, so businesses are ready to respond if there are more. So in this case, our investigators asked if they recognized that they might have multiple employees reporting illnesses or having lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19. We want to define if we think there's been evidence of illness transmission among employees, or are these kind of one-off exposures — like two people were ill, but both of them had ill or confirmed family members at home. And if we think there's an ongoing transmission, we ask, 'Do these employees work on the same shift? Are they in the same department? What are their roles? How do they interact with each other?'"
Once evidence of an outbreak at the Costco emerged, Tri-County Health reps followed up with a different set of questions, she explains: "We wanted to know, 'How are you guys tracking your cases? Are you aware of the cases? What kind of screening and symptom-monitoring is happening? What do your cleaning, disinfecting and social-distancing protocols look like? And how are you evaluating if employees are sick and which other employees might have been exposed?'"
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The Costco wasn't asked to close, because Tri-County Health determined that "their disease-control measures matched and were consistent with the disease-control measures we would have asked them to implement anyway," Warren says. Moreover, there have been no deaths or extremely serious illnesses traced to this store, unlike an Aurora Walmart that was temporarily shuttered after an outbreak that included the deaths of one Walmart staffer and her husband, as well as a part-time guard there.
There's been no on-site inspection of the Costco, Warren acknowledges, but company officials and supervisors "have been very communicative, very cooperative and really compliant in supplying the data as needed, and they're letting us know if they have new cases," she says.
Westword reached out to both King Soopers and Costco management for comment; neither company has yet responded.
Tri-County Health encourages anyone who sees unsafe conditions at stores to phone the department at 303-220-9200; the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment can be reached at 720-913-1311.