Most hospital workers don’t have greater risk of COVID-19 due to their jobs, study finds

Dive Brief:

  • A new JAMA Network Open study has concluded that most hospital workers are no more at risk of contracting COVID-19 from their jobs than being out in the community.
  • Researchers from Emory University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, Rush University Medical Center and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention questioned nearly 25,000 front-line healthcare workers and tested them for the presence of COVID-19 antibodies.
  • The authors concluded the “findings provide reassurance that current infection prevention practices in diverse healthcare settings are effective in preventing transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from patients to [providers].”

Dive Insight:

The study found that even nurses, who have the most patient contact, were not at a greater risk of contracting the novel coronavirus because of their work.

Individual workers who had contact with someone who had COVID-19 were far more likely to have antibodies in their blood than those with no known contact, as were those who worked in hospital emergency rooms.

However, “there was no clear association between workplace contact with patients with COVID-19 and antibody positivity,” the study concluded.

Despite the fact that healthcare workers aren’t being exposed to COVID-19 at a rate greater than other groups, the study’s authors said they should be given priority for vaccination due to “their continual potential exposures in the workplace, the importance of preserving healthcare capacity, and the risk of transmitting the virus from infected [healthcare workers] to a large number of at-risk patients.”

As of Tuesday, the CDC had counted more than 421,000 cases of COVID-19 among healthcare workers in the U.S and 1,391 deaths. That is almost certain to be an undercount, however, as that occupation information was only available in a small subset of the data.

The agency still recommends a “conservative approach” to monitoring infections and applying work restrictions for healthcare workers, depending on community spread in an area.

In the JAMA Network Open study, nearly 70% of those who were tested were younger than age 50; 78.2% were women; 61.2% were White, and 20.7% were Black. Among the workers, 87.1% were employed in an acute care hospital setting; 5.3% in an ambulatory care setting and 2.5% in a rehabilitation setting.

The overall positivity rate for COVID-19 antibodies was 4.4%, and was fairly consistent among all of the settings. They ranged from 3.2% at the University of Maryland Medical Center to 5.7% at Emory.

Among age groups, those over the age of 60 who worked at Johns Hopkins had the highest positivity rate, 7.5%. Among ethnicities, Black workers at Emory had the highest positivity rate, at 8.2%, and White workers had positivity rates ranging from 2.2% at the University of Maryland to 4.6% at Johns Hopkins.

Among specific jobs, employees in environmental services had the highest exposure rate, averaging 7.4%, more than 50% higher than nurses (4.8%) and more than double that of nurse practitioners/physician assistants (3.5%).

Physicians had a positivity rate of 3.7%, slightly lower than the exposure rate among non-clinical employees (3.9%). Workers in hospital emergency departments also had a higher positivity rate (5.3%).