Healthcare workers are seven times more likely to suffer from a severe infection of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) to those in nonessential jobs, a research focusing on the first UK-wide lockdown has found.
The results of the research were published online, on Tuesday, in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine.
Healthcare workers were also found to be twice as likely to have severe infections compared to those working in the social care and transport sectors, which are also termed essential workers. The findings emphasise the need to ensure that essential, or key, workers, such as those in healthcare, are adequately protected against the coronavirus, the research added.
Few studies have looked at the differences in the risk of developing severe COVID-19 infections between different groups of workers. While it is known that those working in healthcare roles are at heightened risk, it remains unclear what the risks might be for those working in other sectors.
To find out, the researchers compared the risks among essential and non-essential workers of developing severe infection, drawing on linked data from the UK Biobank study, which was conducted between 2006 and 2010. They also drew on COVID-19 test results from Public Health England (PHE), affiliated to the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care, and the recorded deaths for the period from 16 March to 26 July 2020.
The UK Biobank is a long term study tracking factors potentially influencing the development of disease in around 500,000 middle-aged and older adults.
Severe infection was defined as a positive test result for SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, while in hospital, or which caused death attributable to the virus.
The study included 120,075 employees aged in the 49-64 age group. Of those studied, 35,127 (29%) were classified as essential workers, with: healthcare workers accounting for 9%; social care and education accounting for 11%; and ‘other’ referring to emergency response services, such as the police force, and those working in transport and food preparation, which accounted for 9%.
Those of Black and Asian ethnicities comprised nearly 3% each of the total, and who are more likely to be essential workers, as are women.
In all, 271 employees were reported to have had severe COVID-19 infection. Compared with non-essential workers, those working in healthcare roles were more than seven times as likely to have severe infection. In this instance, healthcare professionals included: doctors and pharmacists; medical support staff; health associate professionals, defined as nurses and paramedics; and social care and transport workers.
When the researchers refined the employment categories further, it emerged that medical support staff were nearly nine times as likely to develop severe virus infections, with those in social care almost 2.5 times as likely to do so. At the same time, transport workers were reportedly twice as likely to contract severe infections.
And when the researchers looked at the impact of ethnicity, they found that the risks of severe infection for non-essential workers representing Black and Asian minorities were similar to those for white essential workers, suggesting that ethnicity is a key factor.
Non-essential workers from ethnic minorities, such as Black and Asian backgrounds, were also more than three times as likely to develop severe COVID-19 infection as white non-essential workers. At the same time, Black and Asian minority essential workers were more than eight times as likely to do so.
With the exception of transport workers, for whom heightened risk of severe COVID-19 infection was linked to socioeconomic status, the findings held true. This was even after accounting for potentially influential risk factors, including lifestyle, co-existing health problems, and work patterns.
It is important to highlight that this is an observational study, and therefore cannot establish cause. The authors also acknowledge that their initial background data relied on figures collected over a decade ago, leaving them unable to account for any changes in health, lifestyle, income, and employment status. The UK Biobank is also not representative of the broader population.
The researchers were also unable to take account for the changes in risk over time, such as the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE). Nevertheless, the findings echo those of other studies, they point out.
The researchers concluded by saying, “Our findings reinforce the need for adequate health and safety arrangements and provision of PPE for essential workers, especially in the health and social care sectors.”
They added that the health and wellbeing of essential workers is critical to limiting the spread and managing the burden of global pandemics.