The Infection Of Hundreds Of Thousands Of Healthcare Workers Worldwide Poses A Threat To National Health Systems

A study recently published in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases from thirty-seven countries found that nearly 300,000 healthcare workers had been infected with Covid-19. In addition to the high number of infections, over 2,500 healthcare workers died from the virus as of August 15th.

Healthcare workers are on the frontlines of the fight against Covid-19. This study highlights the enormous risk that high numbers of healthcare worker infections and deaths pose to national health infrastructures and calls on the World Health Organization (WHO) to publish data on the number of healthcare worker infections and deaths in each of its member countries beginning in this month.

Countries surveyed are members of the Infectious Disease – International Research Initiative and were asked to report the number of coronavirus infections and deaths among doctors, nurses, other medical staff, and the total number of infections and deaths. Data came either directly from collaborators on the article, Ministries of Health, or from countries’ coronavirus websites.

Of the thirty-seven countries surveyed, the United States had the highest number of coronavirus infections among healthcare workers with 114,500 infections reported as of August 15th. Mexico followed with a reported 78,200 infections while France and Italy had 30,000 and 29,000 coronavirus infections respectively. While the United States had the highest number of infections, the rate of infections adjusted for the population size was highest in Mexico, Italy, and France.

Among all thirty-seven countries, the median rate of death from Covid-19 in healthcare workers was 0.05 per 100,000 individuals. Mexico experienced the highest number of deaths due to Covid-19, with the loss of 1,162 healthcare workers. The United States followed with 574 healthcare worker deaths. In Italy, 214 healthcare workers died from Covid-19 and in Iran there were 164 Covid-19 deaths among doctors, nurses, and other medical staff.

The World Health Organization’s Regional Office for Africa reported 10,000 infections among healthcare workers in Africa at the end of July. At the beginning of September, the Pan-American Health Organization reported 570,000 healthcare worker infections with coronavirus and 2,500 deaths from Covid-19 in North and South America.

In just the past three months, the number of healthcare worker infections in the US has almost doubled. On November 15th, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a total of 216,049 coronavirus infections among healthcare workers since the pandemic began in the US. This is an increase of 101,520 infections since August. The number of healthcare worker deaths from Covid-19 also increased from 574 in August to 799 in November.

One of the drawbacks of this study is that it is unknown whether healthcare workers were infected while they were working or in the community. However, two studies published early in the pandemic from China and the Netherlands found that healthcare workers were more likely to become infected with the coronavirus in the community than while at work.

To care for infected individuals who require hospitalization or intensive care, we must have a healthy and robust healthcare workforce. Even before the pandemic began, the US was already experiencing a shortage of nurses. In the week of November 8th to November 15th, there were 1.1 million new coronavirus cases in the US. States are now reporting more Covid-19 patients in the hospital than at any point previously in the pandemic. As infection and hospitalization rates rise, the US cannot afford to have its health workforce depleted by Covid-19 infections among healthcare workers. The healthcare workforce in some parts of the country is already stretched so thin by the high number of hospitalizations that the Governor of North Dakota announced that nurses who had tested positive for Covid-19 and were asymptomatic could continue caring for Covid-19 patients. This crisis standard of care is an example of how dire the situation is in North Dakota and may become in other states. The North Dakota Nurses Association does not support this policy, as it puts uninfected nurses at risk, and called for all efforts to be made to return to the previous policy where no infected nurses are going to work.

To ensure that we have enough healthcare workers to care for those infected with Covid-19, we must halt community spread of the virus. Widespread wearing of masks in all parts of the country should be implemented to reduce transmission. We need expanded testing and dramatically decreased turnaround time of results if testing is to be an effective method of decreasing transmission. Seeing family for the holidays is something that many of us look forward to all year. Unfortunately, small family gatherings are contributing to the rise of Covid-19 cases. The CDC recommends limiting indoor gatherings with people from different households as this can increase the risk of spreading the coronavirus. By working together to control the spread of the coronavirus in the community, we will decrease the likelihood of hospitals becoming overwhelmed from Covid-19 cases and will reduce the infection rate among healthcare workers who are doing everything they can for their patients.

© William A. Haseltine, PhD. All Rights Reserved.