The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Given the contact many grocery store workers have with the public, they would seem to be potentially at special risk from Covid-19. And a headline in the Washington Post yesterday blared, Grocery workers are beginning to die of coronavirus.
But check the subheadline: "At least four people – who had worked at Walmart, Trader Joe's and Giant – have died from covid-19 in recent days." We learn in the body of the article that "a Trader Joe's worker in Scarsdale, N.Y., a greeter at a Giant store in Largo, Md., and two Walmart employees from the same Chicago-area store have died of covid-19." Do we know if they caught the virus at their place of work? The reporter doesn't say, and perhaps did not even ask.
Meanwhile, the reporter never stops to ask whether "at least four" is a sufficiently large number that grocery store workers should be worried. So here is some quick math. About 2.5 million Americans work in grocery stores. About one in every 30 thousand Americans has now died of Coronavirus. Taking the simplest route, you would expect approximately 83 grocery, or 2.5 million/30 thousand, grocery store workers to have died of the virus if they were of average risk.
If you were doing at least a semi-serious statistical analysis, you would then have to modify the 83 figure by age, preexisting conditions, etc., and almost certainly get a lower tally, somewhere in between 4 and 83. But the point is, despite the tenor of the article ("the rise of worker infections and deaths"), the fact that at least four grocery store workers have died of the virus doesn't give you any useful information about whether being a grocery store worker puts you at special risk.
I'm not saying there isn't an increased risk, and I do appreciate that the workers are coming to work every day and *potentially* putting themselves at higher risk. I am saying that reporting on "at least four deaths" out of 2.5 million grocery store workers isn't providing actionable information. Scare stories like this, that provide no context, with reporters who don't ask basic questions, are just irresponsible.