Health-care workers account for 1 in 7 coronavirus cases recorded by the World Health Organization, the U.N. agency said this week.

“Globally, around 14 percent of COVID-19 cases reported to WHO are among health workers, and in some countries it’s as much as 35 percent,” WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news conference in Geneva.

The figures are disproportionate: Data collected by the WHO suggests that health workers represent less than 3 percent of the population in the majority of countries and less than 2 percent in almost all low- and middle-income countries.

But the WHO’s data, released to mark World Patient Safety Day on Thursday, fits with other estimates. In April, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that health-care workers accounted for 11 to 16 percent of COVID-19 cases during the first surge of infections in the United States.

One contributing factor to the high infection rate could be greater levels of testing among health-care workers, who are often prioritized when testing supplies are scarce – which could suggest broader prevalence of COVID-19 in under-tested communities.

“There likely is a bias in the data when you see health-care workers that highly represented,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. “It underscores the fact that we still have testing problems six months into the pandemic.”

Some experts said high COVID-19 rates among health-care workers probably has more to do with the high-risk nature of their work and limited protections.

“At some level it’s not surprising. If you work in an environment with a lot of COVID-19, then your rate of infection is going to be higher,” said James McDeavitt, senior vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

“Health-care workers are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, and that is not simply down to testing differences,” said Angharad Davies, a clinical associate professor at Swansea University who has advocated for widespread testing of British doctors.

McDeavitt and Davies both pointed to a study published in the Lancet this summer that looked at 100,000 front-line health-care workers in Britain and the United States, and found their risk of infection compared with people in the general community was three times greater, even after taking differences in testing into account.

Another recent study conducted in Britain found that intensive care staff had a lower rate of infection when compared with general medical and housekeeping staff.

“Although at first sight this may seem odd, possible explanations could include that by the time patients are unfortunate enough to be admitted to an intensive care unit, they are past the period of maximum infectiousness, and because PPE use on intensive care units is likely to be very stringent,” said Davies.

When COVID-19 began spreading through Western nations early this year, health-care workers faced critical shortages of personal protective equipment, also known as PPE.

Even now, well over half a year into the pandemic, there are shortages of tests: The British government is planning to ration COVID-19 tests to ensure there are enough for health-care workers and teachers, the Guardian reported Thursday.

COVID-19 infection is only one risk factor for health workers during the pandemic. Many also face overwork and financial problems. Some health officials have reported receiving death threats in response to their coronavirus-related policies and recommendations.

Speaking on Thursday, Tedros noted that the WHO’s data did not make clear whether health-care workers had been infected at health-care facilities or at home. He said the organization would be launching a charter on health worker safety that could help guide institutions around the world.

“No country, hospital or clinic can keep its patients safe unless it keeps its health workers safe,” he said.


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