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Four in 10 health care workers who test positive for COVID-19 don't have symptoms, which means they could unknowingly spread the disease to co-workers and patients, researchers say.
For the new study, the research team reviewed 97 studies that included more than 230,000 health care workers in 24 countries. Rates of SARS-CoV-2 infection among the health care workers ranged from 7% to 10%.
Of those who tested positive for the virus, 48% were nurses, 25% were doctors and 23% were other health care workers.
According to the report, 43% worked in regular/non-surgical/non-COVID wards during the screening, 24% worked in the operating room, 16% in the emergency room, 9% in intensive care units and 29% worked in other locations.
"Loss of taste and smell (anosmia), fever and muscle pain were identified as the only symptoms significantly associated with SARS-CoV-2 positivity" among health care workers, said study co-author Dr. Taulant Muka. He's a research group leader at the University of Bern Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine (ISPM), in Switzerland.
Pooled data from 15 studies showed that among health care workers who were positive for SARS-CoV-2, 40% showed no symptoms at diagnosis. One in 20 (5%) of COVID-19-positive health care workers developed severe complications, and one in 200 (0.5%) died.
"Health care workers suffer a significant burden from COVID-19," Muka said.
The findings were scheduled for presentation Wednesday at an online meeting of the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases. They are also scheduled for publication in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
Study co-author Dr. Oscar Franco, director of the ISPM, said, "Health care workers are at the frontline response to … COVID-19, exposing themselves to a higher risk of acquiring the disease, and subsequently, exposing patients and colleagues."
Because a large number of COVID-19 cases might be missed if screening targets only health care workers with symptoms, universal screening should be the standard, Franco said in a meeting news release.
"While more research is needed to understand specific interventions that can help reduce SARS-CoV-2 infection among health care personnel, it is clear that providing health care workers with adequate personal protective equipment and training is essential," he added.
-- Robert Preidt
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