(Reuters) – More than half of U.S. healthcare personnel infected with the new coronavirus likely contracted it via contact with an infected patient or coworker, new data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest.
The findings underscore the need to better protect those on the front lines of the pandemic from becoming infected as hospitals face a crush of patients with the highly contagious COVID-19 respiratory illness caused by the virus.
Healthcare workers should be screened for fever and respiratory symptoms at the beginning of their shifts, researchers said in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. They should also be given priority in coronavirus testing, provided with proper personal protective equipment and trained in their use, and discouraged from working while ill, it said.
Between Feb. 12 and April 9, 315,531 U.S. cases of COVID-19 were reported to the CDC, including 49,370 (16%) that included data on whether patients worked in healthcare.
Among the 9,282 healthcare personnel in that group, 55% reported contact with a COVID-19 patient only in healthcare settings, 27% said they had contact only at home and 13% reported likely contact in the community.
About 5% reported COVID-19 contact in more than one of those settings.
About 90% of infected healthcare workers did not require hospitalization. But severe outcomes, including 27 deaths, were reported across all age groups.
Nearly three quarters of infected healthcare personnel were women, and half were over age 42, likely reflecting “the age and sex distributions among the U.S. healthcare personnel workforce,” the report said. Thirty-eight percent reported at least one underlying health condition.
While only 6% of healthcare personnel in the study were over age 65, they accounted for 37% of the deaths.
Given the higher risk for older healthcare professionals, they should be assigned to lower-risk settings like telemedicine during the pandemic, the CDC recommended.
Because 84% of patients were missing data on healthcare employment status, additional cases among healthcare personnel likely went unidentified or unreported, the CDC noted.
Limited testing even among healthcare workers may also contribute to underreporting of cases.
The CDC expects more coronavirus cases among healthcare personnel as communities experience further widespread coronavirus transmission.
Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, head of infectious diseases at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital who was not involved in the CDC report, said a broad study is needed comparing rates of infection among healthcare workers to that of the general public.
(Reporting by Vishwadha Chander; editing by Nancy Lapid and Bill Berkrot)