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Study explores frontline health care worker risk during early days of COVID-19 pandemic

Photo: Juanmonino/iStockphoto

Boston — Employers in the health care industry need to ensure adequate availability of personal protective equipment and develop additional strategies to protect their frontline workers from COVID-19, a team of researchers has concluded after finding that health care workers in the United States and United Kingdom were at least three times more likely than the general public to report being infected – even after accounting for other risk factors – during the first several weeks of the pandemic.

For their study, the researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, along with King’s College London, used data compiled from the COVID Symptom Study smartphone app between March 24-April 23 in the United Kingdom and March 29-April 23 in the United States. Nearly 100,000 of the 2.6 million app users were British and American clinicians who voluntarily entered their demographic information and medical history into the app. They subsequently reported any COVID-19 symptoms.

Overall, the number of positive cases of COVID-19 among frontline health care workers was 2,747 per 100,000, compared with 242 among the general public.

Among U.S. frontline health care workers, the number of positive cases were 1,836 per 100,000, while the general population experienced 461 per 100,000. The highest infection rates among frontline health care workers were recorded in New York, New Jersey and Louisiana – all of which had more than 5,000 positive cases per 100,000.


Frontline health care workers who reported inadequate PPE were 1.3 times more likely to contract COVID-19 than colleagues who had adequate protection. Those who reported reusing PPE were nearly 1.5 times more likely to contract the disease, while frontline workers who reported they had inadequate PPE while caring for COVID-19 patients were six times more likely to test positive.

Further, the risk of contracting COVID-19 was almost five times higher among Black, Asian and other minority health care workers than the general public.

The study was published online July 31 in the journal The Lancet Public Health.

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