Two studies will help determine whether health care workers in Canada are at higher risk of contracting SARS-CoV-2

Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF) is supporting two studies currently underway to find out how often and why health care workers are contracting SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and how best to protect them. The Government of Canada is providing approximately $2.7 million through the CITF in funding for these two studies.

The first study, led by Dr. Nicola Cherry at the University of Alberta, is enrolling 5,000 health care workers in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec. The participants include physicians in all four provinces, nurses and health care aides in Alberta, and personal support workers in Ontario.

“The study has two goals,” explains study lead Dr. Nicola Cherry, Tripartite Chair of Occupational Health, Professor, Division of Preventive Medicine, University of Alberta. “First, we want to find out how many health care workers have antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, suggesting they’ve had a previous infection. Our aim is to identify work practices and exposures that could be improved and made safer. Second, we want to examine health care workers and the state of their mental health with the goal to identify workplace practices and supports that could be improved to reduce stress.”

Phase 1 started in Alberta and was then extended to Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec. Phase 2 is now underway in Alberta and is just starting in the other three provinces. Preliminary, non-peer reviewed results suggest that in phase 1, of those who had been tested, rates of infection were higher in physicians than in other health care workers and higher in Quebec physicians than among physicians in Alberta. Although the numbers testing positive in phase 1 in Alberta were low, results in phase 2 now suggest three times more health care workers in Alberta are testing positive for SARS-CoV-2. Initial data suggest high levels of anxiety in all groups, with the highest numbers among physicians.

The second study, led by Drs. Brenda Coleman and Allison McGeer from Toronto’s Sinai Health and the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, is comparing whether health care workers who work with patients are at higher risk of becoming infected with SARS-CoV-2 than hospital personnel who do not work directly with patients, such as hospital housekeeping, lab, and administrative staff. Researchers will be performing antibody tests on participants at 0 months, 6 months and 12 months of the study, to capture not only those workers with obvious COVID-19 symptoms, but also those that have had no or few symptoms.

“We want to find out what proportion of infections are associated with work-related exposures as opposed to being acquired in the community. So, we’ll be asking questions such as how they get to work and whether they’ve been seeing family, friends, or colleagues outside of work,” says Brenda Coleman, PhD, researcher at Sinai Health System in Toronto and Assistant Professor, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto. “By asking about risk factors as well as the protective measures they are using both at work and at home, we will determine which factors are most closely associated with infection,” explains Coleman.

“If the current measures of protection in the workplace, such as personal protective equipment (PPE), physical distancing and limited social contact are not adequate, this study will be able to help improve practices,” adds Dr. Allison McGeer, senior clinician scientist at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Sinai Health and Professor of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology and Public Health Sciences, University of Toronto.

While preliminary seroprevalence results for 560 health care workers in the Toronto area are expected soon, the study is actively recruiting participants in Halifax, Sherbrooke, Montreal, Hamilton, Calgary and Edmonton, looking to enroll an additional 2,000 participants before the end of the year. Researchers point out that the faster they get enough participants, the faster they will have results, perform analyses, and be able to make recommendations for the improvement of protective guidelines in the workplace.

“Health care workers are at high risk of being exposed to SARS-CoV-2, as they are on the front-lines,” states CITF Executive Director Dr. Tim Evans. “We lack data on the extent of infection among this population and the data we currently have is contradictory. It is crucial that we look at infection rates and what can be done to reduce these infections, to protect not only health care workers, but their patients, families, and their community.”

“To protect the health and safety of all Canadians, we need to better understand the impacts of COVID-19 on health care workers who are directly and indirectly involved in the care of COVID-19 patients as well as caring for all of our broader health needs,” states Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam. “The resurgence and current rapid epidemic growth of COVID-19 in Canada is increasing the strain on our hospitals and health care resources across the health system. These studies will provide expanded data on the incidence, risk factors and impact of COVID-19 on our essential staff in the health care workforce.”

The funding for these two studies was announced in early September at the same time as 20 other studies were awarded funding. Both were peer reviewed through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)’s COVID-19 Rapid Research Competition and both are funded by the CITF. Original news release: www.covid19immunitytaskforce.ca/canadas-covid-19-immunity-task-force-partners-with-cihr-to-support-22-studies-investigating-covid-19-2/

About the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force 

The Government of Canada launched the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF) in late April 2020 to track the spread of the virus in both the general population and priority populations in Canada. The Task Force also aims to shed light on immune responses to SARS-CoV-2 in a diversity of communities, age brackets, populations, and occupational groups across the nation. To generate this information, the Task Force is drawing on experts from universities and hospitals across Canada, working closely with provincial and territorial public health officials, and engaging communities/stakeholders from inception through to dissemination of findings. For more information visit: www.covid19immunitytaskforce.ca

Media Contacts

COVID-19 Immunity Task Force

media@covid19immunitytaskforce.ca
Rebecca Burns

Cell: +1.438.871.8763
Caroline Phaneuf

Cell: +1.514.444.4532