A disturbing new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that nurses have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. The report, which was published earlier this week, analyzed data from 6,760 hospitalizations across 13 states between March and May.
The researchers discovered that 6 percent of adults hospitalized after being infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, during that time were health care workers. Of those, 36 percent were in nursing-related occupations. Among hospitalized health care workers, about 28 percent were admitted to the intensive care unit, 16 percent required mechanical ventilation and 4 percent died in the hospital.
Health care professionals “can have severe COVID-19-associated illness, highlighting the need for continued infection prevention and control in health care settings as well as community mitigation efforts to reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission,” the report concludes.
This isn’t just something the CDC has noticed: Dr. Martin J. Blaser, director of the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine at Rutgers University, tells Yahoo Life that he’s conducted research that has also concluded that “nurses are disproportionately affected by the virus.”
What’s going on here? There are likely a few factors at play, report co-author Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. A major factor, he says, is that the data was collected “relatively early” in the pandemic. “Personal protective equipment was not always available and perhaps safety training wasn’t optimal,” Schaffner says.
The amount of face time with patients matters too, Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life. Nurses “spend the most hands-on time at the bedside with patients,” he says.
Why does that matter? There is some evidence to suggest that the viral inoculum (level of exposure to the virus) “can play a role in the severity of disease,” Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. “The higher the viral inoculum, the more likely severe disease,” he adds.
But Schaffner cautions against assuming that nurses contracted the infections on the job. “It’s not clear where these infections were acquired,” he says. “A substantial portion of these infections likely were acquired in the community.”
Obesity may have also played a role in the health care workers who were hospitalized: The report found that 73 percent of workers who were hospitalized had obesity. “Obesity is another epidemic in the U.S. population, and health care workers are not exempt,” Schaffner says. Obesity “is a definite risk factor for severe disease and likely played a significant role,” Adalja says.
There were also racial disparities among hospitalized workers: 52 percent of those hospitalized were Black. Research has found that many people from racial and ethnic minority groups are at an increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19.
While the report’s findings are disturbing, Schaffner says he expects the number of hospitalized health care workers — including nurses — to decrease over time. “I think today, and certainly at all the major hospitals, health care workers are very well protected,” he says. “The risk currently to health care workers is quite low.”
Still, Adalja says, hospital systems need to do their part to help protect their staff. “Hospitals can ensure that nurses have adequate supplies of personal protective equipment and are well trained in how to don and doff it safely,” he says.
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.
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