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Features & Columns

Globally, 1 in 7 COVID-19 Cases Are Health-Care Workers

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Globally, 1 in 7 COVID-19 Cases Are Health-Care Workers

2020-09-18 22:10:47

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Doctor wearing mask (Image source: Public domain)

There has been much said about the bravery of front-line workers during the pandemic, working with highly contagious people, sometimes without the right PPE. They are now being rewarded with an astounding statistic: the U.N. agency said this week that one in seven cases of coronavirus recorded by the World Health Organization is a health-care worker.

"Globally, around 14 percent of COVID-19 cases reported to a WHO are among health workers, and in some countries it's as much as 35 percent," said WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a Geneva news conference.

It doesn't seem proportionate with the population, however, as data collected by the WHO shows that less than 3 percent of the population in most countries and 2 percent in almost all low- and middle-income countries are health-care workers.

The new data, though, measures up to other estimates. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in April that health-care workers accounted for 11 to 16 percent of COVID-19 cases.

One possible reason for this could be that health-care workers are tested more often, as testing for this demographic is prioritized when testing is scarce.

There likely is a bias in the data when you see health-care workers that highly represented," said Amesh Adalja, a John Hopkins University Center for Health Security senior scholar. "It underscores the fact that we still have testing problems six months into the pandemic."

Yet, there is also the belief that the high rate of COVID-19 among health-care workers is just purely because of their job and having limited PPE.

"At some level, it's not surprising. If you work in an environment with a lot of COVID-19, then your rate of infection is going to be higher," said senior vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, James McDeavitt.

"Health-care workers are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, and that is not simply down to testing differences," said clinical associate professor Angharad Davies at Swansea University, an advocate oof widespread testing of British doctors.

Both McDeavitt and Davies cited a study that was published in the Lancet over the summer. It studied 100,000 front0line health-care workers in Britain and the United States. The risk of infection in this group compared to the general community was three times as great. And this was after differences in testing were taken into account.

While all of that is bad news, a British study found that staff in intensive care units had a lower rate of infection than general medical staff and housekeeping staff.

Davies noted that "although at first sight this may seem odd, possible explanations could include that by the time patients are unfortunate enough to be admitted to an intensive care unit, they are past the period of maximum infectiousness and because PPE use on intensive care units is likely to be very stringent."

But COVID-19 infections are just one risk factor for health workers during the coronavirus pandemic. Many are facing being overworked and are struggling financially as well. They're receiving death threats as well because of their policies and recommendations.

Tedros noted on Thursday that the data wasn't clear whether the health-care workers had been infected at their workplace or whether they had been infected at home. Regardless, he said the WHO would be launching a charter on health worker safety. 

"No country, hospital, or clinic can keep its patients safe unless it keeps its health workers safe," he said.

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