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Infectious Diseases

Updated 18 September 2020

Healthcare workers and Covid-19: Researchers looked at risk of transmission in a hospital setting

Among healthcare workers, infection rates are far higher than in the general population, adding another layer of risk to an already stressful job.

  •  Intensive care staff have the lowest risk of Covid-19 infection, possibly due to enhanced PPE
  • Housekeeping staff in hospitals, on the other hand, are most at risk 
  • Those with coronavirus symptoms also showed better immunity than asymptomatic healthcare workers

Healthcare workers have been at the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic, fighting day and night against the onslaught of the Covid-19 virus.

It's no secret that, among these professionals, infection rates are far higher than in the general population, adding another layer of risk to an already stressful job.

New research published in Thorax aims to add to the growing body of research on Covid-19 and healthcare workers by looking at asymptomatic spread in a hospital setting, and which type of worker is most susceptible to infection.

"Understanding the relationship between infection, symptomatology and the subsequent serological responses is critical to understanding herd immunity, vaccine deployment and safeguarding the workforce," write the researchers. "Seroprevalence studies provide the foundation to inform this understanding."

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Who's at most risk

The researchers analysed samples from 545 asymptomatic healthcare workers from the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust in the UK. They took the sample after one 24-hour workday in April and tested for Covid-19 with a nasopharyngeal swab and for its antibodies with a blood test. 

They excluded anyone presenting with symptoms on the day of the study. 

Thirteen of the participants tested positive for the coronavirus, and 24.4% tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies. Those who showed symptoms had a better immunity than those who never developed symptoms.

The health departments at the participating hospital with the highest infection rate were the staff in housekeeping, acute medicine and general internal medicine. 

The section with the lowest infection rate, surprisingly, were participants who worked in the intensive care unit, emergency medicine and general surgery. 

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Better PPE

Why are some departments more at risk? The researchers hypothesise that intensive care areas were deemed high-risk from the beginning and thus employed better personal protective equipment (PPE) than other departments. 

The data also leaned toward finding non-whites more likely to be infected, but more research needs to be done to understand why this might be.

"Thus, the overall seroprevalence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in healthcare workers in this study is significantly greater than the 6% seroprevalence in the general population of the Midlands region determined by Public Health England.

"Data from two other studies also found elevated infection or seroprevalence in healthcare workers compared with the general population. Collectively, these studies suggest a marked occupational risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 associated with healthcare work during the Covid-19 pandemic," say the researchers.

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