Healthcare workers seven times more likely to develop severe COVID than non-essential staff, study suggests

Alexandra Thompson
·4-min read
Closeup Asian female Doctor wearing face shield and PPE suit and praying for stop Coronavirus outbreak or Covid-19, Concept of Covid-19 quarantine
Healthcare workers like doctors and nurses have been on the front-line throughout the pandemic. (Posed by a model, Getty Images)

Healthcare workers are significantly more likely to develop severe coronavirus complications than non-essential staff, research suggests.

Throughout the pandemic, medical professionals like doctors, nurses and paramedics have been on the front-line, raising concerns they are at greater risk of catching the virus from infected patients.

With the coronavirus said to be mild in four out of five cases, scientists from the University of Glasgow set out to better understand how many medical staff who catch the infection develop severe disease, known as COVID-19.

After analysing more than 120,000 people aged 49 to 64, results suggest healthcare workers are seven times more likely to endure serious coronavirus complications than non-essential staff.

Social and education workers were found to be 84% more at risk of severe COVID-19.

Read more: Mass testing in Slovakia helped cut coronavirus rates by 61%

When looking at ethnicity, the scientists found the odds of a severe infection among Black and Asian non-essential workers was similar to those for white essential workers.

Statistics have repeatedly flagged people of a non-white ethnicity are more likely to catch, and become seriously ill, with the coronavirus.

Female bus driver with protective mask working during COVID-19
Transport workers, like bus drivers, were found to be around twice as likely to develop severe coronavirus complications as non-essential staff. (Posed by a model, Getty Images)

To curb the coronavirus outbreak, Boris Johnson introduced a nationwide lockdown on 23 March, requiring those who can work from home to do so.

Since lockdown was lifted several months later, a strict tier system and series of “circuit-breakers” were introduced throughout the UK to try and get a handle on rising cases.

Throughout this time, office staff have largely been encouraged to work from home.

Concerns have been raised “key workers” who cannot carry out their job remotely – like pharmacists, supermarket staff and bus drivers – may be more likely to encounter the virus.

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To learn more, the Glasgow scientists analysed data from the UK Biobank study carried out between 2006 and 2010.

This long-term research project tracks factors that may influence the onset of disease in around half a million middle-age and elderly adults, enabling the scientists to gauge the participants’ underlying health.

This data was linked to coronavirus test results from Public Health England and recorded deaths from 16 March to 26 July.

Watch: Can you catch coronavirus twice?

More than 120,000 middle-aged adults were analysed, of whom just under a third (29%) were classed as essential workers.

Of these, 9% were employed in healthcare, 11% in social care or education, and the remaining 9% in professions like the police, transport or food preparation.

Overall, 271 of the participants developed severe COVID-19, defined as testing positive for the coronavirus while receiving hospital care or a death attributable to the infection.

Read more: Toddler endured temporary heart failure with coronavirus

The results, published in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine, suggest the healthcare workers were around seven times more likely to develop severe COVID-19 than the non-essential employees.

The risk rose to nearly nine times among medical support staff specifically, like nursing assistants and hospital porters.

Non-essential workers with a Black or Asian background were found to be over three times more likely to develop severe COVID-19 than white non-essential workers, while Black and Asian essential workers faced over eight times the risk.

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Why people of non-white ethnicity may be at greater risk of the coronavirus is not entirely clear. Experts have suggested a higher prevalence of underlying health conditions, living in crowded homes and dependence on public transport.

The Glasgow scientists’ results remained true after they accounted for other factors that may influence a person’s COVID-19 risk, like pre-existing medical issues.

The exception was transport workers, whose risk of coronavirus complications was linked to their socioeconomic status.

“Our findings reinforce the need for adequate health and safety arrangements and provision of PPE [personal protective equipment] for essential workers, especially in the health and social care sectors,” concluded the scientists.

“The health and wellbeing of essential workers is critical to limiting the spread and managing the burden of global pandemics.”

The scientists added, however, the initial Biobank data was collected in 2006, with this information potentially also not applying to the population as a whole.

This research comes after a study in October suggested healthcare workers and their families made up one in six working-age COVID-19 patients in hospital during the UK’s first coronavirus wave.

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