COVID-Related Harm to HCWs Must Be Tracked More Rigorously: NAS Panel

Alicia Ault

December 15, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

A panel of scientific experts is urging the nation to do more to track morbidity and mortality among healthcare workers (HCWs), given the large and disproportionate number who have been infected with or died from SARS-CoV-2.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine's Standing Committee on Emerging Infectious Diseases and 21st Century Health Threats issued a 10-page "rapid expert consultation" on what is known about deaths and mental health problems among HCWs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and how to protect workers.

"The absence of a uniform national framework and inconsistent requirements across states for collecting, recording, and reporting HCW mortality and morbidity data associated with COVID-19 impairs anyone's ability to make comparisons, do combined analyses, or draw conclusions about the scale of the problem," says the panel in the report.

Mental health, in particular, needs to be examined, it says. Although the data are still limited, the prevalence of burnout and suicide "points to a serious concern," according to the report.

"As with mortality due to COVID-19, there are currently no national systems nor reporting standards for morbidity measures related to the pandemic, such as mental health status, provider well-being, and other psychological effects on HCWs," the report says.

A more robust national system that collected data on circumstances and interventions that may raise or lower risk, as well as on where the infection occurred, "would support the adoption of effective mitigation strategies," says the report. It would also facilitate epidemiologic studies on risk factors, such as face-to-face contact with COVID-19 patients and the availability and use of personal protective equipment (PPE). Studies could also examine the impact of institutional requirements for masking.

Studies have consistently shown that universal mask wearing and access to appropriate PPE support the physical safety and mental health of HCWs, says the report.

Track Scale of Crisis

The committee cited many gaps in the current system. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, for instance, doesn't count deaths from occupationally acquired infection. Many states don't report COVID-19 deaths by profession. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) relies on case report forms from local health departments for all COVID-19 cases, which typically are lacking in specifics, such as occupation or job setting, says the committee's report.

As of November 3, the CDC had reported 786 deaths among HCWs that were attributable to COVID-19 — a far lower number than other sources have reported.

The committee notes that much could be done immediately. A National Academy of Medicine panel on clinician well-being and resilience in August recommended that the CDC establish a national epidemiologic tracking program to measure HCWs' well-being, assess the acute and long-term effects of COVID-19 on those workers, and report on the outcomes of interventions.

Such a program "is needed to comprehensively acknowledge the scale of the COVID-19 crisis and protect the healthcare workforce that is already stretched to the breaking point in many locations," the committee says in its report.

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