High levels of PPE prevented transmission of COVID-19 for frontline healthcare workers in China, new study finds

Healthcare worker in face mask and goggles in hospital corridor
The study evaluated a cohort of 420 healthcare professionals who were deployed to Wuhan during the peak of the pandemic in January 2020

High levels of personal protective equipment provided to frontline healthcare workers in China treating patients with COVID-19, prevented the transmission of the infection, a new international study has found.

Published today in the British Medical Journal, the study, which brings together experts from the University of Birmingham, UK and Sun Yat-sen University and Southern Medical University, Guangzhou, China, evaluated a cohort of 420 healthcare professionals (HCPs) who were deployed to Wuhan from Guangzhou during the peak of the epidemic in January 2020. During the 6-8 week period, the healthcare workers were in close contact with patients who had tested positive for the virus.

Including 116 doctors and 304 nurses, the average age of study participants was 35.8 years and 68.1% (or 286 of 420) were women. The study participants worked 4-6 hour shifts for an average of 5.4 days a week, spending an average of 16.2 hours each week in intensive care units. The participants were equipped with standardised personal protective equipment, including protective suits, masks, gloves, goggles, face shields, and gowns.

While in Wuhan, the participants had daily symptoms checks. Following their deployment, they were quarantined for two weeks, during which they had antigen testing via three nasopharyngeal swabs for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. A serological test to detect antibodies was carried out at the end of the quarantine period to assess if they had been infected. 

Results showed that during the period of deployment, none of the 420 HCPs reported COVID-19 related symptoms. Once they returned home all swabs were tested negative for SARS-CoV-2 specific antigens and IgM or IgG antibodies. The findings suggest that high levels of PPE, combined with other infection control measures can effectively eliminate the risk of infection in those caring for COVID-19 patients on the frontline.

Co-author Professor KK Cheng, Director of the Institute of Applied Health Research at the University of Birmingham, said: “Before a safe and effective vaccine becomes available, healthcare professionals remain at a high risk of exposure. Our study has shown that the provision of adequate protective equipment and strict infection control measures can prevent transmission of the virus for healthcare professionals in close contact with infected patients.

“The results of the study should be considered in the context of this particular cohort, who as well as using PPE, were living away from home under strict social distancing restrictions, further minimising the risk of transmission. The study did not address the question of what the minimal level of personal protective equipment should be. Healthcare systems must give priority to the procurement and distribution of personal protective equipment, and provide adequate training to healthcare professionals in its use.”

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