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Even with proper PPE (personal protective equipment), frontline healthcare workers battling the coronavirus day in and day out are still at a three times higher risk of testing positive for COVID-19 in comparison to the general population. That’s the main conclusion drawn from a recent study conducted at King’s College London and Harvard University, and then published in Lancet Public Health..

Predictably, healthcare workers treating patients without adequate PPE are at a greater risk of coronavirus infection. Not as predictable, however, was the finding that BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic) healthcare workers are at even greater risk of contracting the coronavirus while wearing proper PPE than their white counterparts.

According to researchers’ calculations, BAME frontline workers are at least five times more likely to test coronavirus positive than the non-Hispanic, white general population.

“The findings of our study have tremendous impact for healthcare workers and hospitals. The data is clear in revealing that there is still an elevated risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection despite availability of PPE,” explains senior study author Sebastien Ourselin, a professor at King’s College London, in a release. “In particular we note that that the BAME community experience elevated risk of infection and in some cases lack access to adequate PPE, or frequently reuse equipment.”

The research team analyzed a huge dataset of both American and British adults (2,035,395 individuals in general and 99,795 frontline healthcare workers). For every 100,000 healthcare workers, 2,747 tested positive for coronavirus. Meanwhile, for every 100,000 members of a general community, only 242 tests came back as COVID-19 positive.

Also, while just over 20% of healthcare workers reported feeling at least one coronavirus symptom (fatigue, loss of smell, loss of taste, etc), only 14.4% of the general population said the same.

This study indicates that PPE, while certainly important, is only a portion of the answer when it comes to protecting doctors and nurses. Besides just making sure healthcare workers have proper access to PPE, the authors say it may be time to start considering additional protection strategies.

Also, equally as important as providing PPE is making sure it is used correctly and properly cleaned before reuse. It’s probably a good idea for frontline workers to avoid reuse of PPE altogether, researchers say.

“The work is important in the context of the widely reported higher death rates amongst healthcare workers from BAME backgrounds. Hopefully a better understanding of the factors contributing to these disparities will inform efforts to better protect workers,” says joint first study author Dr. Mark Graham.