COVID-19: Support workers in hospitals hits more than doctors and nurses

According to a recent survey, almost 10 percent of healthcare staff at a New Jersey hospital checked for COVID-19 or virus antibodies tested positive.

COVID-19 supporting workers
Image credit: Spiderplay/Gettty Images

Between April 28 and June 30, researchers tested almost 4,000 staff and clinicians at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, NJ, following a COVID-19 boom in the Garden State that started in March.

According to findings published in the October issue of the journal Open Forum Infectious Diseases, of those examined, 13 workers had COVID-19, and 374 had virus antibodies, indicating a recent contraction of the novel coronavirus.

Healthcare staff who were in close contact with patients were more likely than those who were unable to test positive. Interestingly, hospital support staff members were more likely than doctors and nurses to test positive.

Nearly 24 percent of screened phlebotomists tested positive for COVID-19 or antibodies, while approximately 17 percent tested positive for maintenance and housekeeping staff, 17 percent of food service staff, and 14 percent of screened support staff. Only about 7 percent of screened doctors and 9 percent of screened nurses tested positive, meanwhile.

The research authors warn that there is no way to tell whether COVID-19 was produced by workers at work or in the societies where they live, which could have had a high rate of transmission.

The study’s authors point out that best practices for shielding workers from the virus emerged early in the pandemic, when more information became available.

Researchers also recognize the possibility that the wellbeing of frontline staff could have been prioritized by hospital management over that of workers who have no contact with patients.

“In the early stages of the pandemic, hospital support personnel may also have had fewer access to personal protective equipment or less safety policy compliance,” says study co-lead author Daniel B. Horton, an assistant professor at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School of Rutgers.

Black and Latinx workers twice as likely to test positive

Another key result was the Rutgers study: screened Black and Latinx workers were twice as likely to test positive for COVID-19 or virus antibodies as white workers, irrespective of whether they had minimal patient interaction or no contact at all.

This finding confirms other recent studies that have shown that Black people are four times more likely to get the novel coronavirus and three times as likely to contract Latinx individuals.

A number of recent journal papers have shown, including this report, that healthcare staff are more likely than members of the general population to test positive for COVID-19 or display the existence of virus antibodies.

On the other hand , research have not been as definitive as to whether healthcare staff with closer exposure to COVID-19 patients are more likely to receive a positive COVID-19 test or to be present with virus antibodies.

The study authors note that in various hospitals, the percentage of frontline healthcare workers who test positive for COVID-19 or display the existence of virus antibodies when screened has varied.

Emily Barrett, lead author of the study and associate professor at Rutgers School of Public Health, says: “The risk to staff in healthcare settings with little or no patient interaction has received relatively little attention to date, but our findings indicate potentially high rates of infection in this community.”

To protect all hospital personnel from COVID-19, the study indicates a need for strict safety protocols.

“It is important to safeguard these and all hospital staff from infection both in and out of the hospital as cases of COVID-19 in the hospital increase again,” says Horton.

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