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Healthcare Workers on the Frontlines Are More Vulnerable Than Ever

By CHAR ADAMS

Conventional wisdom has held that frontline healthcare workers were at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 because they work in such close contact with coronavirus patients. Now, a new study published in The Lancet has confirmed this belief, highlighting that these workers account for up to 20% of COVID-19 infections.  

Researchers in the study found that 10-20% of COVID-19 diagnoses are likely healthcare workers — with Black, Asian, and other minoritized groups at even higher risk. The researchers observed frontline healthcare workers in the U.S. and the U.K. and found that access to adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and ethnic background were important factors in risk. 

“These findings highlight the pervasiveness of COVID-19 health disparities. Even within the health care system, there are major disparities in the risk of acquiring SARS-CoV-2 infection by race/ethnicity. We need answers as to why this has happened so that we can prevent and mitigate them going forward,” says CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy Distinguished Professor Denis Nash, of the Coronavirus Pandemic Epidemiology Consortium (COPE).

 “Is it because health care workers of color tend to work in settings and neighborhoods that see a greater number of Coronavirus patients? Is it because they are working in settings that are less safe than the settings where their white counterparts are working in terms of infection control capacity and PPE availability?”

Researchers in the study are part of COPE, a new initiative in which epidemiology researchers work to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Over two million people in the U.S. and U.K. used an app to provide information including their age, sex, race or ethnic background, occupation, medical history and COVID-19 symptoms. 

The group concluded that healthcare systems must provide adequate PPE and implement specific protocols to protect frontline healthcare workers from COVID-19, particularly those belonging to minoritized groups.

Meanwhile, as the nation looks forward to a potential vaccine, CUNY SPH Professor Bruce Y. Lee says such treatment is just the beginning of a long journey to ending the pandemic. In The Conversation, Lee detailed four main challenges that must be quickly addressed amid hopes for a vaccine.

These include limited manufacturing capacity, unknown type of vaccine, production and distribution, and disadvantageous business practices. 

“People’s lives, and life as we know it, are on the line. All of the complexities of producing a vaccine need to be addressed through open worldwide discussions and extensive mapping and modeling of these scenarios,” Lee writes. “Without proper planning and preparation, society may be left in a situation where production cannot meet demand or vaccines are shoddily produced.”