UAlbany Conducts Largest Study on COVID-19 Symptoms & Deaths Among U.S. Healthcare Workers

Image of COVID-19 virus as it would appear under a microscope. Image is primarily tones of blue with virus outlines highlighted in white.
Understanding shared traits among healthcare workers that experienced severe symptoms or died of COVID-19 can inform strategies to protect essential workers providing care.

ALBANY, N.Y. (Aug. 25, 2022) — Healthcare workers who died of COVID-19 in the early waves of the pandemic were disproportionately male, over 50 years old and of Black or Asian descent. So reports a recent study led by UAlbany’s School of Public Health, which is the largest to date examining COVID-19 symptoms and deaths among U.S. healthcare workers.

The study found that over the first three waves of the pandemic, (January 2020 - October 2021), 440,044 cases were recorded among U.S. healthcare workers, with 1,469 deaths. This represents a fatality rate of 0.33 percent, compared to a 2.48 percent for the general population.

Frequent and prolonged exposure to infected patients puts healthcare workers at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 and experiencing severe symptoms.

“It’s important to evaluate how COVID-19 affected healthcare workers because they are a highly susceptible subpopulation due to their work,” explains Shao Lin, lead author of the study and a professor at UAlbany’s School of Public Health. “They often face more exposure to the virus than the average person, particularly when there’s a surge.”

Using CDC data on laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases, the research team analyzed information on healthcare workers’ demographics and symptoms, focusing on differences between those who died from COVID-19 and those who recovered. They compared these data against the same information recorded for non-healthcare workers who had COVID-19. Over 6 million total cases were analyzed over the study period.

The four study groups included: healthcare worker deaths, healthcare worker nondeaths, non-healthcare worker deaths and non-healthcare worker nondeaths. (The latter three served as controls.)

“While we found that the fatality rate among healthcare workers was significantly lower than the general population, we also found that healthcare workers who died had severe indicators and symptoms of COVID-19, which may be due to their proximity to and longer duration of exposure,” Lin says. “Healthcare workers’ knowledge and access to treatment could explain the lower fatality rate within this population.”

Preexisting conditions were the most important predictor of death among infected healthcare workers, followed by severe symptoms including shortness of breath, fever, cough, nausea/vomiting and diarrhea. Healthcare workers aged 50-59 years old were at highest risk of dying due to COVID-19. Of those who died, 27.17 percent were Black and 21.47 percent were Asian — significantly higher than in the three control groups.

“The disproportionate burden of deaths from COVID-19 for Black and Asian healthcare workers may be due to factors that place these groups at higher risk, such as living in overcrowded neighborhoods, higher body mass index, lower incomes and higher rates of coronary heart disease (a high-risk comorbidity of COVID-19 death). These factors can make COVID-19 easier to spread and cause more severe symptoms,” Lin explains.

Almost one third of healthcare worker deaths occurred in June of 2020, during a nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases. At the same time, healthcare workers were dealing with insufficient personal protection, limited resources, overcrowded care units and heavy workloads from the influx of patients.

“This study shows that there are clinical indicators and specific symptoms that may predict COVID-19 related deaths among U.S. healthcare workers,” says Lin. “This understanding — paired with improving hospital working conditions like ensuring access to sufficient protective equipment and building capacity to reduce caseloads — could help guide efforts to lower risk of severe COVID-19 infections among essential workers providing care.”

Collaborators on the study include researchers at Sun Yat-Sen University School of Public Health, UAlbany’s College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity, and the University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health.

The work was published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.