Covid-19 screening research offers reassurance for NHS staff treating patients

Infection rates among NHS workers tested for Covid-19 were no higher for those treating patients face-to-face than for staff in non-clinical roles, according to a new study.

The research, published in the Lancet medical journal, could offer some reassurance to those on the frontline of the fight against the outbreak.

Medics from the Newcastle Upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and researchers from Newcastle University teamed up for the study of 1,654 NHS workers who experienced Covid-19 symptoms over 21 days last month.

The research team could identify the roles of more than 1,000 of them, splitting them into three groups:

– patient-facing, such as nurses, doctors, porters

– non-patient-facing but potentially higher risk, such as domestic or laboratory staff

– non-clinical staff, such as administrative workers or those in IT roles

The researchers found rates of infection of 15.4% among directly patient-facing staff; 16.3% among those non-patient facing, but in roles with a potentially higher risk; and 18.4% among non-clinical staff.

Dr Lucia Pareja-Cebrian, director of infection prevention and control within Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, and an author of the report, said: “Testing symptomatic staff has allowed us to identify cases early and we’re able to provide support immediately to those who have become infected with coronavirus, advising that they self-isolate from others until their symptoms disappear.

“This means that their families and contacts remain safe.”

The researchers said their study showed efficient testing of staff was possible during a pandemic, with workers getting their results within 48 hours of initial contact.

They tested mainly hospital employees from two Newcastle hospitals, local GPs and North East Ambulance Service workers.

Staff reporting symptoms to their occupational health teams were tested within 24 hours at designated screening pods, staffed by trained nurses.

They were told to self-isolate while they waited for an email with their results, returned within the following day.

The team found that earlier in the month positive tests were low, at 5% on March 10, but rose steadily to 20% by March 31.

They found the growth in cases flattened after the Government’s social distancing measures were brought in.

The research team did admit limitations to the data as they could not identify roles among all of the staff tested.

The team also said small number of non-clinical staff tested meant that it was not possible to meaningfully compare “transmission dynamics” between the groups, where more complex patterns may exist, but studies were ongoing.