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Viral sequencing reveals US healthcare personnel rarely become infected with SARS-CoV-2 through patient contact

By Katarina M Braun, Gage Kahl Moreno, Ashley Buys, Max Bobholz, Molly A Accola, Laura Anderson, William M Rehrauer, David A. Baker, Nasia Safdar, Alexander J Lepak, David H O'Connor, Thomas C Friedrich

Posted 01 Feb 2021
medRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.01.28.21250421

Background Healthcare personnel (HCP) are at increased risk of infection with the severe acute respiratory coronavirus 2019 virus (SARS-CoV-2). Between 12 March 2020 and 10 January 2021, >1,170 HCP tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 at a major academic medical institution in the Upper Midwest of the United States. We aimed to understand the sources of infections in HCP and to evaluate the efficacy of infection control procedures used at this institution to protect HCP from healthcare-associated transmission. Methods In this retrospective case series, we used viral genomics to investigate the likely source of SARS-CoV-2 infection in 96 HCP where epidemiological data alone could not be used to rule out healthcare-associated transmission. We obtained limited epidemiological data through informal interviews and review of the electronic health record. We combined viral sequence data and available epidemiological information to infer the most likely source of HCP infection. Findings We investigated 32 SARS-CoV-2 infection clusters involving 96 HCP, 140 possible patient contacts, and 1 household contact (total n = 237). Of these, 182 sequences met quality standards and were used for downstream analysis. We found the majority of HCP infections could not be linked to a patient or co-worker and therefore likely occurred in the outside community (58/96; 60.4%). We found a smaller percentage could be traced to a coworker (10/96; 10.4%) or were part of a patient-employee cluster (12/96; 12.5%). Strikingly, the smallest proportion of HCP infections could be clearly traced to a patient source (4/96; 4.2%). Interpretation Infection control procedures, consistently followed, offer significant protection to HCP caring for COVID-19 patients in a representative American academic medical institution. Rapid SARS-CoV-2 genome sequencing in healthcare settings can be used retrospectively to reconstruct the likely source of HCP infection when epidemiological data are not available or are inconclusive. Understanding the source of SARS-CoV-2 infection can then be used prospectively to adjust and improve infection control practices and guidelines.

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