A sick and tired healthcare worker sits in a corner
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Nearly half of healthcare workers who had COVID-19 experience related complaints for months after coming down with the virus, said researchers releasing new study results along with back-to-work observations.

Pulmonary function tests may be useful in determining return-to-work dates, and they should be conducted regularly for caregivers with lung symptoms who return to work, the investigators said.

The new findings support prior examinations of lasting COVID symptoms and underscore the need for long-term followup of workers with ongoing complaints, researchers wrote.

“Although the majority of patients did not have respiratory symptoms, lower DLCO levels suggested that a pulmonary function screening be performed upon return to work and at regular intervals,” wrote lead author Öner Abidin Balbay, of the Department of Chest Diseases at the Duzce University Faculty of Medicine in Turkey.

In particular, Six Minute Walk Test (6MWT) and DLCO measurements may help workers decide when to return to work if they are experiencing ongoing symptoms, Balbay and colleagues said.

“[T]o ensure uninterrupted healthcare services, one of the top priorities in the fight against the pandemic is to protect healthcare professionals,” they noted. 

Nearly 1.2 million nursing home workers have had COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to federal figures. More than 2,400 have died. Early in the pandemic, nursing homes were identified as having the highest infection and mortality rates compared to any other setting.

The researchers examined pulmonary function in 53 hospital workers in Turkey who had persistent complaints after returning to work after a bout with COVID. Their resumptions of work ranged from about five days to 31 days after a positive COVID test, with the average time away being 18 days. 

Nearly half (47%) of the study participants had ongoing COVID-related health issues at three months, the researchers noted. These included shortness of breath and labored breathing (25%), weakness (9.5%) and muscle aches (8%). About 22% of the study participants were smokers, 36% had comorbidities and nine workers had been hospitalized due to COVID. 

Many showed low levels of lung function in standardized tests and checks of exercise function. 

Varied tests performed using a standard spirometer revealed the potential for underlying lung issues. Measures of pulmonary function using the DLCO test, which can signal a range of lung problems, were abnormally low in 40% of the cases. 

Workers with low DLCO scores also were more likely to take longer to return to work than those who didn’t receive low scores on this test. Researchers reported no significant difference among the participants in terms of smoking status, comorbidities, severity of disease and treatment location.