Frontline healthcare workers who have access to “adequate” personal protective equipment are three times more likely to test positive for the coronavirus than the general public, according to a new study. Providers from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, and those who report reusing PPE, are even more likely to test positive, the researchers say.

Investigators with King’s College London tracked SARS-CoV-2 prevalence using virus tracking app data for more than 2 million study participants. They found more than 2,700 cases for every 100,000 workers compared with 242 cases per 100,000 people in the general public. Workers also were more likely to report symptoms linked to a SARS-CoV-2 infection. Approximately 20% had at least one symptom, compared with 14% of the general population. Fatigue, loss of smell or taste, and hoarse voice were the most common signs reported.

Meanwhile, BAME healthcare workers were found to have at least fivefold increased odds of testing positive for the virus when compared with non-Hispanic whites. Workers who reported reusing their equipment also were more at risk of a positive test result.

The findings show not only the importance of adequate PPE availability and use, but the need to ensure correct PPE application and removal, and to avoid reuse, said Sebastien Ourselin, Ph.D., the study’s senior author.

“The data is clear in revealing that there is still an elevated risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection despite availability of PPE,” he said. “In particular, we note that the BAME community experiences elevated risk of infection and in some cases lacks access to adequate PPE, or frequently [must] reuse equipment.”

The researchers classified PPE as adequate if study participants reported always having the equipment they needed, or that they never required PPE. It was deemed inadequate if the workers reported not having enough PPE or that it was not available. 

The study was published in The Lancet Public Health.