NEW BRUNSWICK — In a study of healthcare workers at two Rutgers-affiliated hospitals over two crucial weeks of the spring onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses were found to be more at risk than any other group for contracting the coronavirus.

The study, published in the journal BMC Infectious Diseases, included 546 workers at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick and University Hospital in Newark who had regular contact with COVID patients, and 283 non-healthcare workers, primarily Rutgers faculty and staff, with no patient contact.

These participants were closely observed for any changes in their health condition from March 24 to April 7. Of the 40 healthcare workers who tested positive for COVID-19 at the start of the study, Rutgers reported that 25 were nurses. Only one of the non-healthcare workers tested positive.

Lead co-author Emily Barrett, an associate professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at Rutgers School of Public Health, said the study works as an early-stage snapshot of infection risk, but should be interpreted with the understanding that New Jersey hospitals are much safer now.

"We just have so many more protocols in place, we have so much more data to know how to protect our healthcare workers, but back at the beginning, we were flying blind," Barrett said. "One of our hospitals didn't even have universal masking at the beginning, and now that sounds crazy to us because masking is such a part of our daily lives."

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Barrett said Rutgers has now collected six months of data on those involved in the study, although the published report only covers those very early days, when the best indications of what might come next were coming from overseas, in China and throughout Europe.

The participants will continue to be monitored to better comprehend how the virus evolves over time in those infected, and how long antibody levels remain detectable.

"This is kind of our first snapshot from the study, but I think we're going to have a lot more to report in the coming months about what COVID-19 looks like among healthcare workers in New Jersey," she said.

Even early on, it was clear that healthcare workers would be particularly at risk. They will be among the first recipients of an eventual COVID-19 vaccine, and Barrett said going forward, making sure they have adequate and plentiful personal protective equipment remains a top priority, particularly for those, such as nurses, on the front lines.

However, a follow-up study also conducted by Rutgers identified elevated rates of COVID infections among all types of hospital workers — security staff, housekeeping, and food service, many with no direct patient contact.

"There's an instinct to say that the frontline workers are going to be the ones who are most impacted, but we see that it really trickles down throughout the hospital too," Barrett said.

The main study also found that just as communities with higher minority populations have seen more concentration of COVID cases, there were more recorded infections at the Newark hospital in the study than at the New Brunswick one.

One thing Barrett said is not likely to happen in New Jersey hospitals is for workers with existing comorbidities to be able to be kept away from all COVID patients. New Jersey is not yet at an all-hands-on-deck stage again in its healthcare facilities, but Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday that due to the spikes of the virus elsewhere in the country and the world, extra manpower that would have been sent to us in the spring might not be available now.

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