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Many health workers may already have had COVID-19

Friday August 7th 2020

The majority UK healthcare workers may already have been infected with COVID-19, according to new research out today.

Researchers at the University of East Anglia and University College London have found a high prevalence of anosmia cases among healthcare workers between mid-February and mid-April.

However, it was not until May that Public Health England added anosmia to the list of symptoms for COVID-19.

Correspondence in today’s The Lancet Microbe reveals 168 out of 262 healthcare staff at London's Barts Health NHS Trust, one of the largest NHS trusts in the UK, who answered questionnaires had had anosmia in the period covered.

Senior author Prof Carl Philpott, from UEA's Norwich Medical School, said: “Smell loss as a symptom of COVID-19 is particularly important for healthcare professionals because they are at the frontline of pandemic - and at high risk of both contracting and spreading the virus.

“In many cases smell loss can be the only symptom of COVID-19 or accompanied by mild symptoms. We wanted to find out how widespread smell loss has been among healthcare workers.”

The survey revealed that 73 (27.9%) of the participant, who completed the questionnaire between April 17 and 23, had been tested for COVID-19, of whom 56 (76.7%) were positive.

Prof Carl Philpott said: “We also found a strong association between smell loss and the positive COVID-19 test results, with those who had lost their sense of smell being almost five times more likely to test positive.

“This suggests that a large proportion of healthcare workers may have already been infected with COVID-19, with only mild symptoms.”

He added that similar results are likely to be recorded at other NHS trusts.

“Cases like this most likely went undiagnosed at the time because of a lack of awareness about smell loss as a symptom,” said Prof Philpott.

“This is really important because healthcare professionals are at the frontline of the pandemic and are at high risk of both contracting and spreading coronavirus.

“There is a need for awareness and early recognition of anosmia as a means to identify, urgently test and isolate affected healthcare workers in order to prevent further spread of disease.”

A follow-up survey in May found that 47% of respondents’ sense of smell and taste had completely recovered. A further 42% said they had partially recovered their sense of smell and taste, while 7% still had anosmia.

Another survey has taken place at two Norfolk hospitals and in two hospitals in the North West and those results are due to be published soon.

Lechner M, Counsell N, Liu J et al. Anosmia/hyposmia in healthcare workers with a SARS-CoV-2 infection. The Lancet Microbe 6 August 2020.

Tags: Flu & Viruses | NHS | UK News

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