Healthcare Workers Face Increased Risks During the Pandemic

Healthcare workers have been at an increased risk for SARS-CoV-2 infection and mental distress such as anxiety and depression during the pandemic, according to new research.

In an analysis of administrative health records for about 3000 healthcare workers in Alberta, Canada, the workers were as much as twice as likely to become infected with SARS-CoV-2 compared with the overall population. The risk for infection was higher among healthcare workers in the first two waves of the pandemic and again during the fifth wave.

“Previous publications, including ours, suggested that the main problem was in the early weeks and months of the pandemic, but this paper shows that it continued until the later stages,” senior author Nicola Cherry, MD, an occupational epidemiologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, told Medscape Medical News.

photo of Nicola Cherry
Nicola Cherry, MD

The findings were published on January 16, 2024, in the Canadian Journal of Public Health.

Wave Upon Wave

In the current study, the investigators sought to compare the risk for SARS-CoV-2 infection and mental distress among healthcare workers and among community referents (CRs). They examined the following waves of the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Wave 1: From March to June 2020 (4 months)
  • Wave 2: From July 2020 to February 2021 (8 months)
  • Wave 3: From March to June 2021 (4 months)
  • Wave 4: From July to October 2021 (4 months)
  • Wave 5 (Omicron): From November 2021 to March 2022 (5 months)

Healthcare workers in Alberta were asked at recruitment for consent to match their individual records to the Alberta Administrative Health Database. As the pandemic progressed, participants were also asked for consent to be linked to COVID-19 immunization records maintained by the provinces, as well as for the results of all polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The investigators matched 2959 healthcare workers to 14,546 CRs according to their age, sex, geographic location in Alberta, and number of physician claims from April 1, 2019, to March 31, 2020.

Incident SARS-CoV-2 infection was examined using PCR testing and the first date of a physician consultation at which the code for SARS-CoV-2 infection had been recorded. Mental health disorders were identified from physician records. They included anxiety disorders, stress and adjustment reactions, and depressive disorders.

Most (79.5%) of the healthcare workers were registered nurses, followed by physicians (16.1%), healthcare aides (2.4%), and licensed practical nurses (2.0%). Most participants (87.5%) were female. The median age at recruitment was 44 years.

Healthcare workers were at a greater risk for COVID-19 overall, with the first SARS-CoV-2 infection defined from either PCR tests (odds ratio [OR], 1.96) or from physician records (OR, 1.33). They were also at an increased risk for anxiety (adjusted OR, 1.25; P < .001), stress/adjustment reaction (adjusted OR, 1.52; P < .001), and depressive condition (adjusted OR, 1.39; P < .001). Moreover, the excess risks for stress/adjustment reactions and depressive conditions increased with successive waves during the pandemic, peaking in the fourth wave and continuing in the fifth wave.

“Although the increase was less in the middle of the phases of the pandemic, it came back with a vengeance during the last phase, which was the Omicron phase,” said Cherry.

“Employers of healthcare workers can’t assume that everything is now under control, that they know what they’re doing, and that there is no risk. We are now having some increases in COVID. It’s going to go on. The pandemic is not over in that sense, and infection control continues to be major,” she added.

The finding that mental health worsened among healthcare workers was not surprising, Cherry said. Even before the pandemic, studies had shown that healthcare workers were at a greater risk for depression than the population overall.

“There is a lot of need for care in mental health support of healthcare workers, whether during a pandemic or not,” said Cherry.

Nurses Are Suffering

Commenting on the research for Medscape Medical News, Farinaz Havaei, PhD, RN, assistant professor of nursing at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, said, “This is a very important and timely study that draws on objective clinical and administrative data, as opposed to healthcare workers’ subjective reports.” Havaei did not participate in the research.

photo of Dr. Farinaz (Naz) Havaei
Farinaz Havaei

Overall, the findings are consistent with previous research that drew upon healthcare workers’ reports. They speak to the chronic and cumulative impact of COVID-19 and its associated stressors on the mental health and well-being of healthcare workers, said Havaei.

“The likelihood of stress/adjustment reaction and depression showed a relatively steady increase with increasing COVID-19 waves. This increase can likely be explained by healthcare workers’ depleting emotional reserves for coping with chronic workplace stressors such as concerns about exposure to COVID-19, inadequate staffing, and work overload,” she said. Witnessing the suffering and trauma of patients and their families likely added to this risk.

Havaei also pointed out that most of the study participants were nurses. The findings are consistent with pre-pandemic research that showed that the suboptimal conditions that nurses increasingly faced resulted in high levels of exhaustion and burnout.

“While I agree with the authors’ call for more mental health support for healthcare workers, I think prevention efforts that address the root cause of the problem should be prioritized,” she said.

From Heroes to Zeros

The same phenomena have been observed in the United States, said John Q. Young, MD, MPP, PhD, professor and chair of psychiatry at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell in Hempstead, New York. In various studies, Young and his colleagues have reported a strong association between exposure to the stressors of the pandemic and subsequent development of depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among healthcare workers.

photo of John Q Young MD
John Q. Young, MD

“The findings from Alberta are remarkably consistent. In the beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of acknowledgment of the work healthcare workers were doing. The fire department clapping as you leave work at night, being called heroes, even though a lot of healthcare workers feel uncomfortable with the hero language because they don’t feel like heroes. Yes, they’re afraid, but they are going to do what they need to do and help,” he said.

But as the pandemic continued, public sentiment changed, Young said. “They’ve gone from heroes to zeros. Now we are seeing the accumulated, chronic effects over months and years, and these are significant. Our healthcare workforce is vulnerable now. The reserves are low. There are serious shortages in nursing, with more retirements and more people leaving the field,” he said.

As part of a campaign to help healthcare workers cope, psychiatrists at Northwell Health have started a program called Stress First Aid at their Center for Traumatic Stress Response Resilience, where they train nurses, physicians, and other healthcare staff to use basic tools to recognize and respond to stress and distress in themselves and in their colleagues, said Young.

“For those healthcare workers who find that they are struggling and need more support, there is resilience coaching, which is one-on-one support. For those who need more clinical attention, there is a clinical program where our healthcare workers can meet with a psychologist, psychiatrist, or a therapist, to work through depression, PTSD, and anxiety. We didn’t have this before the pandemic, but it is now a big focus for our workforce,” he said. “We are trying to build resilience. The trauma is real.”

The study was supported by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the Canadian Immunology Task Force. Cherry and Havaei reported no relevant financial relationships. Young reported that he is senior vice president of behavioral health at Northwell.

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