CHOC study shows reduced risk of emergency department COVID-19 infection

A new CHOC Children’s study that could help calm public fears about contracting COVID-19 shows that asymptomatic healthcare professionals who work in a community with a low prevalence of the disease and who undergo daily health screenings are unlikely to be carriers of the coronavirus that causes the disease.

Findings of the study, one of the first of its kind and conducted during California’s projected peak of coronavirus-related use of hospital resources, shine an encouraging light on a topic where there are currently limited data available.

CHOC’s study tested patient-facing staff at its Julia and George Argyros Emergency Department during a two-week period in April 2020, using a Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test for COVID-19 viral RNA. Subjects were asymptomatic and had no fever, as all employees undergo daily pre-shift health and temperature screenings prior to entering the hospital. Testing found just one of 145 subjects was positive for COVID-19, and contact tracing showed that this person was not responsible for any further transmission of infection.

With these findings indicating that strict screening measures in a hospital serving a community with a lower prevalence of COVID-19 are effective in preventing the spread of the disease, the study could also offer some comfort to people who may have been reluctant to seek medical care for themselves or their children because they fear contracting COVID-19 in a healthcare setting. 

“We are encouraged by the results of the study and trust that our community will be reassured to know that the chances of acquiring COVID-19 during a visit to a pediatric emergency department can be lower than during routine activities,” said study co-investigator Dr. Terence Sanger, CHOC’s vice president of research and chief scientific officer. “We continue to urge them to seek prompt expert care for themselves and their children when the need arises.”

Hospitals nationwide have reported a significant drop in emergency department visits for major acute conditions. Patients may seek medical attention too late for adequate treatment, which could have serious, even fatal, consequences.

Preliminary data from California suggest that while healthcare workers represent 10% of all known COVID-19 cases in the state, only 18% of those cases were known to be acquired in a healthcare setting. This indicates the workers likely contacted the disease outside of the healthcare setting.

The low rate of infection in CHOC’s emergency department could be attributed to many factors, including the lower percentage of infection in the surrounding community, as well as people in the community following safety guidelines including social distancing and wearing masks.

Additionally, healthcare workers in a pediatric setting might be expected to have a lower risk of infection than those in an adult healthcare setting due to a lower rate of high-risk aerosolization procedures such as intubation in younger patients.

“We take every precaution we can to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in CHOC care settings,” said Dr. Theodore Heyming, medical director of CHOC’s emergency department and study co-investigator. “While the effects of the coronavirus continue to be devastating, this report offers a ray of hope that brave healthcare workers can continue to administer care to their patients without the added burden of putting themselves or the people they care for at further unnecessary risk.”

Also contributing to the study were Aprille Tongol, a CHOC research administrator; Jennifer MacLean, a CHOC nurse practitioner; and multiple staff from the CHOC Children’s Research Institute.

Learn more about the CHOC Children’s Research Institute.