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Healthcare Workers Are 7 Times More Likely To Develop Severe COVID-19

Healthcare worker preparing for surgery at hospital.

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Key Takeaways

  • New research found healthcare workers are much more likely to develop severe COVID-19 than other workers.
  • Social and education workers are also at a high risk of a severe form of the disease.
  • Repeat exposure to the virus may be behind the risk, experts say.

A new study from the U.K. found that healthcare workers are seven times more likely to develop severe COVID-19 than other workers. The December study was recently published in the journal BMJ Occupational & Environmental Medicine.

For the study, researchers analyzed data from participants in the U.K. Biobank, a large-scale, ongoing biomedical database and research resource, between March 16 and July 26. The study included 120,075 people between the ages of 49 and 64. Of those, 35,127 were classified as essential workers, with 9% working in healthcare, 11% working in social care and education, and 9% working in law enforcement, transportation, and food preparation.

Overall, 271 people in the study developed a severe COVID-19 infection during the study. The researchers discovered that healthcare workers had the highest rates of severe COVID-19 when compared to non-essential workers.

Healthcare workers included:

  • Doctors
  • Pharmacists
  • Medical support staff
  • Nurses
  • Paramedics
  • Social care and transport workers

These healthcare workers were seven times more likely to develop a severe infection when compared to the other groups. Social and education workers were also at high risk—they were 84% more likely than others to develop a severe infection—while other essential workers had a 60% higher risk of developing severe COVID-19 compared to non-essential workers.

The study did have some limitations. Because this was an observational study, the researchers didn’t determine why certain workers were at a higher risk than others. They also didn’t factor in the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) over time.

Still, the authors concluded that “these findings underscore the need for national and organizational policies and practices that protect and support workers with an elevated risk of severe COVID-19."

What This Means For You

Healthcare workers and other essential workers are at a higher risk than other workers for contracting severe COVID-19. If you fall into one of these groups, experts say getting the COVID-19 vaccine and continuing to follow safety protocols are crucial to staying safe.

Why Healthcare Workers Are at Higher Risk

It likely comes down to exposure, Richard Watkins, MD, an infectious disease physician and and associate professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Verywell. Healthcare workers have “higher levels of viral exposure” and are “in close contact with infected patients,” he points out.

Research published in the journal Nature Communications in October found that hospitalized patients with COVID-19 had a high viral load (meaning, a large amount of virus in their body). This may be exacerbated with repeat or prolonged exposure to people with the virus, Prathit Kulkarni, MD, assistant professor of medicine in infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, tells Verywell.

“Repeat exposure might tend to lead to more severe forms of COVID-19 because the odds of acquiring the disease increase as the time someone spends around a person who has infectious COVID-19 goes up,” he says. “There are some theories that have been proposed linking the viral ‘dose’ or ‘inoculum,’ that is, how much virus someone is infected with, might be related to worse outcomes. That work is in the preliminary phases and is still being fully evaluated.”

But while PPE shortages were an issue at the beginning of the pandemic, and more healthcare workers were exposed to the virus as a result, it’s less of a problem now, John Sellick, DO, an infectious disease expert and professor of medicine at the University at Buffalo/SUNY in New York, tells Verywell. “When you look at healthcare workers who were more likely to get COVID-19, it was early on in particular where there were shortages of PPE,” he says. “There were a lot more healthcare worker-related infections. There tends to be less of that now.”

Still, Sellick points out, people who work in the emergency room or intensive care unit “are exposed to the virus all the time.”

What Can Essential Workers Do To Protect Themselves?

Proper PPE is crucial, Sellick says. But, Watkins says, it’s not perfect. “I know healthcare workers who got it and took every precaution at work,” he says, adding that it’s a scary situation.

Other than that, Kulkarni stresses the importance of following known methods of preventing the spread of COVID-19: wearing masks outside the home, social distancing of more than six feet outside of work, and frequent handwashing.

Getting vaccinated is also crucial, he says—but it doesn’t give people a free pass to ignore the other rules of preventing the spread of COVID-19. “Even after getting vaccinated, people should still continue to follow all usual public health guidance until such time as we hear different guidance from public health authorities,” he says.

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  1. Mutambudzi M, Niedwiedz C, Macdonald EB, et al. Occupation and risk of severe COVID-19: prospective cohort study of 120 075 UK Biobank participants. Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Published Online First: 09 December 2020. doi:10.1136/oemed-2020-106731

  2. UK Biobank. Learn more about Biobank.

  3. Fajnzylber, J., Regan, J., Coxen, K. et al. SARS-CoV-2 viral load is associated with increased disease severity and mortality. Nat Commun. 2020;11(5493). doi: 10.1038/s41467-020-19057-5