Support staff may face higher COVID-19 risk than clinicians, study finds

Support staff at a New Jersey hospital were more likely to test positive for COVID-19 or virus antibodies compared to physicians and nurses, according to a study published in Open Forum Infectious Diseases. 

Researchers screened more than 3,900 employees at New Brunswick, N.J.-based Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital for COVID-19 and antibodies between April 28 and June 30. Thirteen employees tested positive for the virus and 374 had virus antibodies. Results were assessed in relation to demographic and occupational characteristics. 

Phlebotomists accounted for nearly 24 percent of positive COVID-19 or antibody tests, followed by maintenance/housekeeping staff (17.3 percent), dining/food services employees (16.9 percent) and interpersonal/support staff (13.7 percent). Physicians and nurses had lower positivity rates at 7.2 percent and 9.1 percent, respectively. 

Black and Latinx healthcare workers and support staff were also twice as likely to test positive for COVID-19 or virus antibodies than white employees, regardless of whether they had direct patient contact.

"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," Emily Barret, PhD, study author and an associate professor at Rutgers School of Public Health in Piscataway, N.J., said in a news release

The potential lack of access to personal protective equipment for hospital support staff or lax safety protocols at the start of the pandemic may be responsible for the findings, underscoring the importance of rigid safety protocols to protect all employees within healthcare settings, researchers said.


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