When the Whole Foods Market on Mack closed early on Tuesday night, customers didn’t know the reason why.

Now we do.

There has been a significant COVID-19 outbreak at the Midtown location, with the Detroit Health Department confirming to Daily Detroit that 23 out of 196 employees have tested positive so far.

Anonymous sources tell us that three quarters of the on-shift staff Tuesday night tested positive with rapid tests, meaning the store did not have enough employees to keep open. So it shut with an hour’s warning at 7 p.m. on February 23.

The next day, we’re told the store was still short staffed but reopened, with no word from any of the social media accounts to the public. Whole Foods confirmed that the store reopened Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. 

“Upon being informed of positive cases at Whole Foods, the Detroit Health Department team acted immediately to address this outbreak by offering rapid testing to all employees. 

So far, 23 employees out of 196 have tested positive,” said Detroit’s Public Health Officer Denise Fair. “We have received a commitment from Whole Foods that no workers or close contacts of any employee who has tested positive will be allowed back to work until they have produced a negative test result.”

Daily Detroit reached out to Whole Foods to follow up. A spokesperson sent the following statement. 

“The safety of our Team Members and customers remains our top priority, which is why we address any confirmed diagnosis in our stores with a comprehensive action plan that includes enhanced cleaning and contact tracing, as well as communicating directly with our Team Members. We support any Team Member who is diagnosed positive or placed in quarantine so they can prioritize their health and stay home. We have rolled out extensive measures to keep people safe in our stores and are diligently following all guidance from local health and food safety authorities.”

They also said that there have been a number of cases since the beginning of the pandemic and confirmed what our sources said about the closure time on Tuesday night.

Whole Foods says they’re requiring that all Midtown Detroit Team Members to receive a negative COVID test before reporting to work and that a positive-testing employee is eligible for up to two weeks of paid time off. 

But the people who work there aren’t so sure. In a number of conversations, I’ve been told stories of how social distancing isn’t possible in various areas, and that there isn’t much communication by management to employees.

“I have a full understanding it’s up to me to keep me safe. The company isn’t going to do that,” said one source. 

Even if tested, employees and customers might not be out of the woods yet.

“Typically, we wait 5-7 days to test someone for Coronavirus because they’re most likely to test positive five to seven days after being exposed,” said Dr. Paul Thomas of Plum Health Direct Primary Care. “If you come into contact with someone who tests positive for the virus, it’s best to to get tested via nasal swab PCR. If you test too early, there’s a greater chance of receiving a false negative result, meaning you have the virus but your viral load hasn’t gotten large enough to register.”

All grocery store workers who work in the city of Detroit — whether they live in the city or not — have been eligible to get a vaccine since February 2.

As of this writing, the city’s COVID-19 dashboard reports that 6,206 vaccine doses have been administered to grocery store workers and other types of food handlers. Both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines require two doses for the full level of protection, a number of weeks apart.

Although some employees had received one dose, that only offers partial protection as it takes time for antibodies to be made by the immune system. 

“This is a reminder to all grocery stores of the availability of vaccinations and the importance of getting their employees vaccinated to make sure this does not happen again,” said Fair.

It’s also a reminder that our essential workers are still on the front lines of a pandemic that isn’t over yet.

The Daily Detroit podcast shares what to know and where to go in southeast Michigan each day. You can have a listen to the latest episode (which in part covers this story) in the player below.

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