A medical assistant prepares to take a swab from a patient at a new drive-thru and walk-up coronavirus testing site Saturday, April 25, 2020, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

A medical assistant prepares to take a swab from a patient at a new drive-thru and walk-up coronavirus testing site Saturday, April 25, 2020, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

Hundreds of state health care workers sickened by virus

Number of doctors, nurses who have tested positive not known

By Martha Bellisle | Associated Press

SEATTLE — Hundreds of health care workers and dozens of first responders in Washington state have become sick with the coronavirus while on the job, according to workers’ compensation claims.

The new data provides some insight into how the coronavirus has impacted the health care community, but underestimates how many doctors and nurses have tested positive for the disease.

That number is not known because state and federal health officials have failed to collect the information, and they’ve made no improvements since The Associated Press first reported the problem in April.

“Our data on occupations are not complete, so we do not report the information since it would not be reliable,” said Annie Johnson, a spokesperson for the Washington health department’s Joint Information Center.

Washington is not alone. States that reported coronavirus cases to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control only included occupational information for 16% of all reported cases, the agency said in a new report.

Experts say knowing how COVID-19 is impacting front-line workers in the health care system is vital in handling the crisis.

“It is important to have this information – not only whether or not a case was a healthcare worker, but also whether or not we believe they were exposed treating patients, or were infected in their community,” said Eric Lofgren, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Washington State University.

“Both are critical not only for understanding how hard hit healthcare workers are, but where we need to be taking stronger measures to protect them.”

Most people get the disease through close contact with someone who is infected, the CDC said in another report.

“Health care workers are not only at higher risk of infection but can also amplify outbreaks within healthcare facilities if they become ill,” the report said. “Identifying and managing HCWs who have been exposed to a patient with COVID-19 is of great importance in preventing healthcare transmission and protecting staff and vulnerable patients in healthcare settings.”

The first reported case of coronavirus hit the U.S. on Jan. 21 when a man in the Seattle area tested positive for the disease. Another man near Seattle was initially thought to be the first death in the country on Feb. 29.

In the months that followed, more than 15,185 Washingtonians have tested positive and at least 834 people have died. The virus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most patients, and the vast majority recover.

But it is highly contagious and can be spread by those who appear healthy and can cause severe illness and death in some patients, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.

As of one week ago, 806 people in Washington had filed workers’ compensation claims related to COVID-19, according to Tim Church, a spokesman for the Department of Labor & Industries. Of those claims, 636 were made by health care workers and 37 were first responders, Church said.

Some of the health care claims may include people who are not nurses or doctors, but could be someone who was exposed while cleaning a room of a coronavirus patient, he said.

Nationwide, information is limited on the number of doctors and nurses who have been sickened by COVID-19, according to a recent report by the CDC.

The agency received reports of 315,531 cases of COVID-19 between Feb. 12 and April 9, and was only able to identify 9,282 as health care workers because states didn’t include job information on their forms.

But the 12 states that sent more complete data, health care workers made up 11 percent of the total positive cases.

Most of the workers who tested positive said they had contact with COVID-19 patients in health care settings, while some were exposed to the virus in the community or homes, the report said.

Although 92 percent of those workers reported having at least one symptom, 8 percent didn’t report any symptoms, the report said.

The CDC was able to identify 27 health care workers who died from COVID-19. Reports of deaths of nurses and doctors collected by medical groups have identified more.

The CDC said it’s critical to ensure the health and safety of health care professionals at work and in the community.

“Improving surveillance through routine reporting of occupation and industry not only benefits HCP, but all workers during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the CDC said.

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