Nearly 10% of healthcare workers at a New Jersey hospital screened for COVID-19 or virus antibodies tested positive, according to a recent study.

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Researchers tested nearly 4,000 employees and clinicians at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, NJ, between April 28 and June 30, following a COVID-19 surge in the Garden State that began in March.

Of those tested, 13 employees had COVID-19, and 374 had virus antibodies, suggesting a recent contracting of the novel coronavirus, according to findings published in the October issue of the journal Open Forum Infectious Diseases.

Healthcare workers who had direct contact with patients were more likely to test positive than those who did not. Interestingly, members of the hospital support staff were more likely to test positive than doctors and nurses.

Nearly 24% of screened phlebotomists tested positive for COVID-19 or antibodies, while about 17% of maintenance and housekeeping staff, 17% of food service employees, and 14% of support staff who were screened tested positive. Meanwhile, only about 7% of screened physicians and 9% of screened nurses tested positive.

The authors of the study caution that there is no way to know whether employees developed COVID-19 at work or in the communities where they live, which may have had a high rate of transmission.

The authors of the study point out that early in the pandemic, best practices for protecting workers from the virus evolved, as more information became available.

Researchers also consider the possibility that hospital administrators may have prioritized the health of frontline workers over that of workers who do not have contact with patients.

“In the early phase of the pandemic, support staff in the hospital may also have had less access to personal protective equipment or less enforcement of safety protocols,” says co-lead author of the study Daniel B. Horton, an assistant professor at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

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The Rutgers study made another key finding: Black and Latinx workers screened were twice as likely to test positive for COVID-19 or virus antibodies than white workers — regardless of whether they had limited contact with patients or no contact at all.

This finding supports other recent studies that have found Black people are four times as likely to contract the novel coronavirus and Latinx individuals three times as likely.

Like this study, a number of recent journal articles have found that healthcare workers are more likely to test positive for COVID-19 or show the presence of virus antibodies than members of the general community.

On the other hand, studies looking at whether healthcare workers who have closer exposure to COVID-19 patients are more likely to receive a positive COVID-19 test or present with virus antibodies have not been as conclusive.

The authors of the study note that the percentage of frontline healthcare workers who test positive for COVID-19 or show the presence of virus antibodies when screened has varied in different hospitals.

“The risk to workers in healthcare settings with little or no patient contact has attracted relatively little attention to date, but our results suggest potentially high infection rates in this group,” says Emily Barrett, lead author of the study and an associate professor at Rutgers School of Public Health.

The study suggests a need for stringent safety protocols to protect all hospital employees from COVID-19.

“Going forward, as cases of COVID-19 in the hospital rise again, protecting these and all hospital workers from infection both in and out of the hospital is critical,” says Horton.