Screening Health Care Workers as an Early Warning for Pandemics

Screening Health Care Workers as an Early Warning for Pandemics

Study suggests that data from health care workers could be used to quickly estimate the severity of future viruses

New research has shown that COVID-19 infections in health care workers during the first wave of the pandemic provided an accurate sample of the general population, suggesting that data from health care workers could be used to estimate the severity of future viruses more quickly.

The study, led by researchers from RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences in collaboration with IBM Research, is published in PLOS ONE.

The researchers analyzed the infection data from health care workers and the progression of the first wave of the COVID-19 outbreak using the reported daily infection numbers in Ireland. Using similar data in four other countries (Germany, UK, South Korea, and Iceland), computer models showed how the disease progressed in different countries related to their approach to testing, tracing, and lockdown restrictions.

Health care workers in Ireland made up 31.6 percent of all test-confirmed infections while only representing 3 percent of the population. However, the researchers found that the health care worker data closely related to that of the entire population after using software to create a more accurate picture of how widespread the disease was.

"Setting up wide-scale testing systems for health care workers is much easier than setting up a similar program for everyone since the infrastructure for testing for diseases is always in place in health care settings."

This suggests that governments could use data from only health care workers to inform decisions on whether to implement restrictions, wide-scale testing, and contact tracing for future viruses.

"As we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, implementing countermeasures early can save lives and reduce the spread of the disease," said RCSI professor of chemistry Donal O'Shea, who led the work.

"However, wide-scale testing can take time to set up, delaying decisions and costing lives. While the health care population is no longer an accurate sample of the general population for COVID-19 due to different vaccination rates, governments could use data from their health care worker population to make informed decisions on what measures to implement earlier when future viruses emerge."

The research noted that very few nations were able to set up effective systems that tested the entire population, carried out contact tracing, and quarantined those infected with COVID-19.

"Setting up wide-scale testing systems for health care workers is much easier than setting up a similar program for everyone since the infrastructure for testing for diseases is always in place in health care settings," said Dr. Dan Wu, honorary lecturer in the RCSI Department of Chemistry and first author on the paper.

"A screening program that tested all health care workers would have the additional benefit of catching asymptomatic spread of the disease since all health care workers would be tested. If governments could catch highly infectious diseases and implement countermeasures early, this could possibly prevent new viruses from erupting into another epidemic/pandemic."

- This press release was originally published on the RCSI website