Researchers ask why some Canadian health workers are more likely to get COVID-19 than others

Why are so many health-care workers contracting COVID-19, what protective measures work and how can stress, anxiety and infections be reduced as the second wave of the pandemic continues?

They are questions a second multi-provincial study hopes to answer, as researchers try to limit the devastating toll on the health-care industry across Canada.

The national COVID-19 Immunity Task Force has already completed a first study, which included doctors from BC, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec.

It found rates of infection were higher among physicians than other health-care workers, and that all health-care workers reported high levels of anxiety with physicians the group most often reporting anxiety.

Quebec physicians, the results suggest, had a higher rate of infection than their Albertan counterparts. However, the second study is showing that three times more Albertan health-care workers are testing positive for COVID-19.

The task force is currently looking for volunteers for a second study that will look at how many health-care workers have been infected, what protective measures have worked, and what can be done to reduce stress for health-care workers.

"Are they adequate? Is it enough?" said task force communications officer Rebecca Burns.

"Our aim is to identify work practices and exposures that could be improved and made safer," said Dr. Nicola Cherry, Tripartite Chair of Occupational Health, Professor, Division of Preventive Medicine, University of Alberta, who led the first study.

"Second, we want to examine health care workers and the state of their mental health with the goal to identify workplace practices and supports that could be improved to reduce stress.”

Recruitment is underway at the MUHC (McGill University Health Centre) and Sherbrooke Hospital for the second study, which is led by doctors Brenda Coleman and Allison McGeer out of Toronto.

It will look at whether health-care workers who work directly with patients at their bedside are at a higher risk of contracting the virus than personnel who do not (housekeeping, lab, and administrative staff).

“We want to find out what proportion of infections are associated with work-related exposures as opposed to being acquired in the community," said Coleman.

"So, we’ll be asking questions such as how they get to work and whether they’ve been seeing family, friends, or colleagues outside of work."

Researchers will also determine what protective equipment staff is using at work and home to try and shine a light on why workers are being infected.

“If the current measures of protection in the workplace, such as personal protective equipment (PPE), physical distancing and limited social contact are not adequate, this study will be able to help improve practices,” said McGeer.

The study hopes to enrol 2,000 participants. The Canadian government shelled out $2.7 million for the research.

Task force executive director Dr. Tim Evans said that though it's clear health-care workers are at high risk of being exposed to the novel coronavirus, data is lacking and sometimes contradictory on the extent of the infection among health-care workers.

“It is crucial that we look at infection rates and what can be done to reduce these infections, to protect not only health care workers, but their patients, families, and their community,” he said. 

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