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The intensive care unit staff had one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 infection among workers at a U.K. hospital system, which suggests their personal protective equipment may have given them added protection, a new study says.
British researchers assessed staff at University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust. It's one of the largest hospital trusts in Britain, with more than 20,000 employees.
At the height of the pandemic, it admitted five patients with serious COVID-19 every hour.
The researchers tested 545 staff for current or previous coronavirus infection and were surprised to find that ICU health care workers were among those with the lowest risk of COVID-19. On the other hand, cleaners, acute and general medicine clinicians, and staffers of Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds had the highest risk.
All of the study participants worked over the course of 24 hours April 24-25, about a month after Britain went into lockdown.
Antibodies to the new coronavirus (an indication of previous infection) were most likely to be found in cleaners (34.5%), followed by health care workers in acute medicine (33%) or general internal medicine (30%), researchers reported.
The lowest rates were among health care workers in the ICU (15%), emergency medicine (13%) and general surgery (13%), according to the study. The results appear in the journal Thorax.
The rate among people of Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds was nearly twice as high as that for whites.
"We presumed intensive care workers would be at highest risk. But workers in ICU are relatively well-protected compared with other areas," lead author Dr. Alex Richter said in a linked podcast. She is with the Clinical Immunology Service at the University of Birmingham College of Medical and Dental Sciences.
"The reasons underlying this are likely to be multifactorial: In accordance with national guidelines, intensive care units were designated high-risk environments," Richter and her team noted in a journal news release. Mandated use of enhanced personal protective equipment (PPE) included filtered face piece respirators. "In contrast, fluid-resistant surgical masks were recommended in other clinical areas," they said.
The findings support the assessment of widespread health care worker testing and contact tracing during future waves of the pandemic, the researchers said.
"All these factors are important for considering what's going to happen this winter," Richter said. "Are we going to have another surge? If there is one, how do we protect health care workers this winter?
-- Robert Preidt
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