Over 10% of coronavirus patients caught Covid-19 in hospitals during first wave

13 August 2021, 15:28

In May 2020, one in five patients in hospital with coronavirus had caught it in a hospital setting
In May 2020, one in five patients in hospital with coronavirus had caught it in a hospital setting. Picture: Alamy

By Elizabeth Haigh

More than one in ten patients with coronavirus during the first wave caught the virus whilst receiving treatment for other conditions in a medical setting.

Research published in medical journal the Lancet found that at worst, one in five patients caught coronavirus while in hospital for other conditions last May.

However, hospitals providing acute and general care had far lower rates of infection (9.7%) than community care and mental health hospitals, where the rate was 61.9% and 67.5% respectively.

Dr Chris Green, senior clinical lecturer and consultant physician in infectious diseases at the University of Birmingham, one of the study authors, said that there "are likely to be a number of reasons" why patients were infected in hospital settings.

"These include the large numbers of patients admitted to hospitals with limited facilities for case isolation, limited access to rapid and reliable diagnostic testing in the early stages of the outbreak, the challenges around access to and best use of PPE, our understanding of when patients are most infectious in their illness, some misclassification of cases due to presentation with atypical symptoms, and an under-appreciation of the role of airborne transmission."

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At the start of the pandemic, the government faced widespread criticism over a widely-reported shortage of PPE for NHS staff, as well as staff in social care settings.

For the study, researchers looked at data from over 300 hospitals across the UK, equating to some 72,000 patients.

The researchers recommend that the large difference between different types of hospitals be immediately investigated in order to better implement best practices for reducing infection.

Another of the authors of the study was Calum Semple, a professor in child health and outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool. He said: "The reasons for the variation between settings that provide the same type of care requires urgent investigation to identify and promote best infection control practice.

"Research has now been commissioned to find out what was done well and what lessons need to be learned to improve patient safety."

But he also stressed that hospital acquired infections are now at a much lower level, having dropped from 11.1% to between 2 and 5% of patients catching the virus.

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He said: "That to me says that the NHS has learned the lessons."

Use of PPE and good infection control practices have reduced the proportion of infections acquired in hospitals, but the researchers highlighted the potential dangers of tackling coronavirus alongside other respiratory illnesses over winter.

The researchers added that more must be understood about transmission of Covid-19 in hospitals before the winter months.