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Paramedics and hospital workers prepare to lift a COVID-19 patient onto a hospital stretcher outside the Montefiore Medical Center Moses Campus in the Bronx, Tuesday, April 07, 2020, New York City.
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Nearly 9,300 U.S. health care workers contracted COVID-19, and 27 have died. A majority of those who tested positive (55%) think they were exposed while at work.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released preliminary data on infections among frontline health workers. Nearly three-quarters are women and more than a third had some underlying health condition. The median age is 42.
About 8% of those who tested positive didn't have symptoms. And the majority (90%) didn't have to be hospitalized. But as many as 5% did require intensive care. A third of the health care workers who died were over 65 years old.
"The increased prevalence of severe outcomes in older [health care providers] should be considered when mobilizing retired [health care providers] to increase surge capacity," the authors conclude.
The CDC researchers acknowledge the figures are almost certainly a substantial undercount because most of the people tested in the overall data set (84%) didn't say whether they're a health care worker or not.
"This data is really helpful because it's giving us those first indicators of health care worker risks and exposures," says Dr. Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist at a large health system in Phoenix. "But ultimately we need to be collecting more on this because we have to understand the failures, so we can correct them in the future."
Local data reveals more alarming rates of infection. In Ohio, one in five positive tests has been a health care worker. In Detroit, more than 700 employees of the Henry Ford Health System (which has more than 30,000 employees in total) tested positive.
Kaiser Health News and the Guardian are now collecting the stories of frontline health workers who have died from the virus — they include a VA nurse on the verge of retirement, a hospital custodian in Rochester and a Haitian-born surgeon in the Bronx.
For those working in hospitals treating COVID-positive patients, infection control has become the first thing on their minds. "Each day without proper protection means the risk of another nurse contracting COVID-19 and no longer being able to provide patient care," says Connie Barden of the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses. "We can neither put another nurse in harm's way, nor can we afford to lose even one nurse."
CDC researchers write that their findings suggest the need for proper personal protective equipment in treatment of COVID-19 patients: "It is still critical that, when caring for patients, [health care workers] continue to wear recommended personal protective equipment," including gowns, N95 respirator if available, eye protection and gloves.
At Williamson Medical Center — outside Nashville, Tenn. — pulmonary critical care specialist Aaron Milstone says they have instituted a process where other workers now watch as their colleagues don their protective suits and gear, just to make sure no one breaks protocol.
And frontline workers face their fears every day when they go to work.
"When I put all the PPE on and I'm ready to enter the room and I open that door, the very first thought that goes through my mind is not the patient's well-being. It's, did I put the PPE on correctly?" Dr. Milstone says. "That is an awful feeling."
The AACN has called any shortage of protective gear a "clear and present danger" to nurses.
"Without sufficient PPE, not only will thousands of lives be lost, but this crisis will be prolonged, placing an even greater burden on the nation's health care system and the economy," Barden says. "To protect the United States against COVID-19 and accelerate a return to 'normal,' we must ensure the safety of the 18 million plus physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists and other healthcare workers."