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Senior care facilities that rely significantly on mobile agency staffing may be two and a half times more likely to spread COVID-19 to residents than those with more stable staffing, a Scottish study has found.

In addition, understaffed facilities appear to be safer from spreading COVID-19 infections than those with significant agency staffing, added researchers from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.

In care homes where mobile contracted staffing averaged 10% of the workforce, the risk of infection for residents soared by 250% compared to facilities with “sufficient” staff. The risk at agency-heavy homes was 150% greater than at understaffed facilities.

Researchers acknowledged that the investigation model did not account for potentially lower quality care or reduced compliance with regulations in understaffed settings.

They did emphasize, however, the research could lead to policies to contend with the current of future pandemics.

Study findings “would support policies for limiting the movement of staff working across multiple care homes if their testing compliance is low,” said study co-author Itamar Megiddo of Strathclyde’s Department of Management Science. 

Findings emphasized the value of having staff work in a single facility. The very first COVID-19 U.S. outbreak was attributed to caregivers in the Seattle area who worked at multiple facilities and unknowingly spread the virus.

Although “regular testing with high compliance” helps reduce infection rates, the risk nonetheless remains higher in places that use agency staff, Megiddo said. The challenge is balancing the need to have adequate numbers of workers to maintain quality of care, something their study did not address, he noted. 

In addition to putting residents more at risk, traveling staff themselves were found to be more at risk for catching COVID-19 than permanent staff.

Researchers said risk factors could be mitigated by assigning non-permanent staff to consistent pods or bubbles.

The European study’s findings appeared in PLOS Computational Biology.