Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on May 02, 2020
Viral load matters: Frontline healthcare workers 11% of US COVID19 cases

Viral load matters.

Although there’s plenty we still don’t know about all the ways coronavirus ravages the human body, data are telling us at least this much: More than 10 in 100 frontline healthcare workers in the US are getting infected with COVID19.

Frontline health care workers who are typically in closest proximity with confirmed COVID19 patients account for 11% per cent of US COVID19 cases according to the first national level data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Doctors on the cutting edge of COVID19 research have been urging policy makers to factor viral dose and its relationship to severity. This CDC report based on data between February 12–April 9 gives us a closer look at patterns among those who are at risk of higher viral loads in hospital environments in a country where more than a million people have been sickened by the virus. More than 59,000 Americans have died in 60 days.

Based on preliminary data, the CDC report recommends a cocktail of contact tracing plus pre-emptive screening to identify at-risk healthcare workers, rather than testing them after occupational exposures alone. CDC suggests screening all health care workers for fever and respiratory symptoms at the beginning of their shifts, prioritising them for testing and discouraging them from working while they are ill, with flexible medical leave policies.

Based on the data, CDC recommends that older health care workers who may be coming out of retirement to help with hospital surge capacity, could be assigned to lower-risk settings like telemedicine, administrative assignments, or clinics for non–COVID-19 patients.

Below are key data insights from the CDC report:

1. More than 5 in 10 of infected health care workers studied said their only known exposure to the virus was in a health care setting. Yet, with community spread taking hold, researchers say its getting harder to say exactly where people catch the bug from.

2. Ninety percent of health care workers with COVID19 were not hospitalised; the 27 deaths that were recorded were across all age groups.

3. The pattern of severe outcomes among tracks with the headline trends across the world: Older people are more at risk although deaths were recorded in all age groups.

4. Nearly 4 in 10 healthcare workers patients had at least one underlying condition, which is similar to the infection data coming from other sections of society.

5. About 8-10 percent of US health care workers were hospitalised with symptoms. This is lower than the 21-31 percent overall hospitalisation rate in the US. This, the report says, could be a factor of younger median age (42 years) among healthcare workers compared with the overall population and greater priority in testing.

6. Only 6 percent of healthcare workers in the CDC study  were aged 65 years or older, but this cohort accounted for 37 percent of the deaths.

7. More than 9 in 10 (92 percent) of healthcare workers reported at least one symptom among fever, cough, or shortness of breath. Eight per cent were asymptomatic.

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Nikhila Natarajan

Nikhila Natarajan

Nikhila Natarajan is Senior Programme Manager for Media and Digital Content with ORF America. Her work focuses on the future of jobs current research in ...

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