Many hospital workers infected with COVID-19 don’t show symptoms

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In a new study, researchers examined 13 U.S. medical centers and found 6% of staff tested positive for prior infection with the new coronavirus, with almost half (44%) having no idea they’d ever contracted SARS-CoV-2.

The research was conducted by a team at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and elsewhere.

In the study, blood antibody testing of more than 3,200 doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff was conducted between early April and mid-June.

About 1 in 16 of the tests came up positive, researchers found, and 29% of those positive results arose in people who said they’d had no symptoms suggestive of COVID-19.

Infection rates among staff also varied widely between hospitals, ranging from just 0.8% at one center to more than 31% at another.

According to the team, that likely reflects the level of coronavirus circulating in the city each hospital served.

One thing was clear, however: Use of masks, gowns, gloves and other protective gear by staff kept infection rates down.

And when hospitals faced shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), COVID-19 infections rose.

A higher percentage of participants who reported a PPE shortage had detectable SARS-CoV-2 antibodies (9%) than did those who did not report a PPE shortage (6%).

About 12% of the workers interviewed in the study said they’d already encountered some form of PPE shortage at their medical center.

Researchers say that having an adequate supply of PPE is vital in order to mitigate the increased risk that all health care workers face on the frontlines.

This represents one of the major ongoing challenges that has confronted hospitals and medical centers as the pandemic continues.

Frequent testing of frontline health care workers is also crucial to curbing outbreaks early on because a high proportion of personnel with antibodies did not suspect that they had been previously infected.

What’s important is that health care workers don’t become a reservoir for the asymptomatic spread of infection within the hospital setting or in the community. As a result, scientists must invest in frequent testing of such vital workers.

One author of the study is Dr. Wesley Self.

The study is published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

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