Health care workers all standing socially distantly with their arms crossed facing the camera

Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF) is supporting a Sinai Health study to find out how often and why health care workers are contracting SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and how best to protect them.

The study, led by Drs. Brenda Coleman and Allison McGeer, is comparing whether health care workers who work with patients are at higher risk of becoming infected with SARS-CoV-2 than hospital personnel who do not work directly with patients, such as hospital housekeeping, lab, and administrative staff.

Researchers will be performing antibody tests on participants at 0 months, 6 months and 12 months of the study, to capture not only those workers with obvious COVID-19 symptoms, but also those that have had no or few symptoms.

The Government of Canada is providing approximately $1.6 million through the CITF in funding for this study, which is currently underway.

“We want to find out what proportion of infections are associated with work-related exposures as opposed to being acquired in the community. So, we’ll be asking questions such as how they get to work and whether they’ve been seeing family, friends, or colleagues outside of work,” says Brenda Coleman, clinical scientist at Mount Sinai Hospital.

“By asking about risk factors as well as the protective measures they are using both at work and at home, we will determine which factors are most closely associated with infection,” explains Coleman.

“If the current measures of protection in the workplace, such as personal protective equipment (PPE), physical distancing and limited social contact are not adequate, this study will be able to help improve practices,” adds Dr. Allison McGeer, senior clinician scientist at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute.

While preliminary seroprevalence results for 560 health care workers in the Toronto area are expected soon, the study is actively recruiting participants in Halifax, Sherbrooke, Montreal, Hamilton, Calgary and Edmonton, looking to enroll an additional 2,000 participants before the end of the year.

“Health care workers are at high risk of being exposed to SARS-CoV-2, as they are on the front-lines,” states CITF Executive Director Dr. Tim Evans. “We lack data on the extent of infection among this population and the data we currently have is contradictory. It is crucial that we look at infection rates and what can be done to reduce these infections, to protect not only health care workers, but their patients, families, and their community.”

“To protect the health and safety of all Canadians, we need to better understand the impacts of COVID-19 on health care workers who are directly and indirectly involved in the care of COVID-19 patients as well as caring for all of our broader health needs,” states Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam. “The resurgence and current rapid epidemic growth of COVID-19 in Canada is increasing the strain on our hospitals and health care resources across the health system. These studies will provide expanded data on the incidence, risk factors and impact of COVID-19 on our essential staff in the health care workforce.”

The funding for this study was announced in early September and was peer reviewed through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)’s COVID-19 Rapid Research Competition.