As the COVID-19 pandemic hit Phoenix in late March, doctors, nurses and other caregivers working long hours ran into a new problem: the difficulty of getting groceries.
"My staff was having a hard time because at end of their shift, grocery stores were closed," said Zoe Coleman, clinical nurse manager of St. Joseph's Hospital & Medical Center's nursery intensive care unit. "You can't bring perishables to work and stock them here. Same thing with the night shift. It wouldn't be appropriate to go to the grocery store in scrubs after work."
St. Joseph's became the first CommonSpirit Health hospital to add a makeshift grocery store to the facility on March 30. As frontline caregivers across the country struggle to treat a growing wave of coronavirus patients, hospitals are increasingly adding grocery stores with little or no cost markups so employees can grab the essentials on their way out.
"They didn't even know that there could be a solution to this other than make it work on their own until it was provided to them," Coleman said. The county that includes Pheonix has recorded 1,687 COVID-19 cases as of Thursday.
Not-for-profit systems like Chicago-based CommonSpirit, St. Luke's Health System and Saint Alphonsus Health System have added the stores to their hospitals.
Boise, Idaho-based St. Luke's launched five grocery stores in its hospitals this week. After an "overwhelming" response to its pilot that opened Monday in Meridian, Idaho, St. Luke's launched the rest on Thursday. They carry staples like milk, bread, cheese, meats, fresh produce, pasta and rice. Everything is priced with a 10% markup to cover the cost of repackaging and cleaning the products, said Bart Zillner, operations manager for Food and Nutrition Services at St. Luke's Boise. "We're not in the business of making money," he said. "We just need to cover our overhead."
Others said the food is priced with no mark-up. That's the case at St. Alphonsus, also based in Boise, which opened stores in its two Idaho hospitals this week. "This is not a profit center," spokesman Mark Snider said.
Starting next week, the cafeteria staff at St. Luke's Boise will cook family-size meals hospital employees can buy refrigerated and reheat at home, Zillner said.
The idea came from the recognition that St. Luke's employees are now working shifts that last 12 hours or longer on the floor or 10 hours or longer caring for patients in tents. The last thing they want to do when they're done is go to the grocery store and potentially risk exposure to the virus, Zillner said. "We probably overheard conversations of, 'Oh, I have to go to the store and I just don't have time,'" he said. "Just having those quick little items has made things easier."
At St. Joseph's Hospital & Medical Center in Phoenix, the idea came from the facility's food and nutrition services director, Coleman said. "He was aware of the long hours we were working and also aware that the first thing we wanted to do when we were not working is go home to our families and reduce exposure at the grocery store," she said.
CommonSpirit has made a big push to open the stores across its system. Its Tacoma, Wash., hospital opened a grocery store a few days after the Phoenix hospital. The health system has also opened stores in its Chandler, Ariz. and Gilbert, Ariz. hospitals, as well as its California hospitals in Bakersfield, Merced and Redding.
CommonSpirit has or will open stores in its hospitals in the San Francisco Bay Area, Southern California, Sacramento, Calif. and 12 hospitals in Nebraska.
St. Alphonsus will also open grocery stores in its two Oregon hospitals shortly, Snider said. They carry a long list of staples, as well as take-and-bake meals—all sourced through the health system's regular food vendors.
"At the end of a long shift, they don't want to face going to an empty grocery store," Snider said. "Colleague resiliency is a major emphasis for us now as people are working long and stressful hours."