Health-care settings do not increase risk of contracting COVID-19, study finds

TORONTO — A new study out of the United States has found that working in a health-care setting does not increase one’s risk of contracting COVID-19.

The study, conducted by University of Maryland researchers and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reported that those working in health-care settings face stronger coronavirus infection risks outside of the workplace.

Researchers found that having a known exposure to someone who tests positive for COVID-19 in the community is the “strongest risk factor” for infection, rather then being inside a hospital. Researchers say this suggests that current virus control measures in health-care facilities are working.

“The news is reassuring in that it shows the measures taken are working to prevent infections from spreading in healthcare facilities,” Anthony Harris, study co-author and University of Maryland epidemiology professor, said in a press release.

The findings were published Wednesday in the medical journal JAMA Network Open.

The study looked at survey data from roughly 25,000 health-care providers in Baltimore, Atlanta, and Chicago. In addition to coming in contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19, researchers found that living in an area with a high COVID-19 infection rate is a stronger risk factor than being in a health-care setting.

The same findings may also apply to those visiting hospitals for emergencies or regular appointments amid the pandemic. However, the researchers only analyzed the data as it related to health-care personnel.

Co-author and CDC infectious disease specialist Sujan Reddy says the study suggests that the highest risks to health-care workers “may be exposures in the community.”

“Factors presumed to contribute most to infection risk among healthcare providers, including caring for COVID-19 patients, were not associated with increased risk in this study,” Reddy said in the release.

The study also found that Black Americans working in hospitals were more likely to test positive for COVID-19 than Caucasian health-care workers, confirming evidence from previous studies. However, researchers noted this may be due to “existing disparities in community exposure rather than from healthcare-associated exposures.”

Despite this, Harris said those working in any health-care setting should be prioritized as counties continue rolling out vaccines.

“Vaccination for healthcare workers, however, should remain a priority because of continual exposures in the workplace. There is also an urgent need to keep healthcare providers healthy so they can care for sick patients and reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to vulnerable patients,” Harris said in the release.

The study was funded by the CDC’s Prevention Epicenters Program and included researchers from Emory University School of Medicine and Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta, Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, and Johns Hopkins University.

Researchers noted the study could not determine the level of effectiveness of personal protective equipment (PPE), including face masks, gloves, gowns and face shields, as infection control practices were not standardized across the health-care facilities surveyed.

The study also did not look at whether certain virus mitigation practices, such as disinfecting surfaces in exam rooms, were better than others in preventing COVID-19 infection.

E. Albert Reece, dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said in the release that the study should put health-care workers at ease knowing that current hospital protocols are protecting them against COVID-19.

“As frontline and support staff at hospitals and health systems continue to tirelessly battle COVID-19, they can draw reassurance in this important research finding that the infection control measures in place protected themselves and their families,” Reece said.

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