A new virus, COVID-19, has emerged recently which is threatening to become a pandemic. It is important that healthcare workers follow the new developments and updates about the disease.
The disease originated in Wuhan, China but has been found in clusters in other countries of the world. This includes northern Italy, South Korea and Iran where cases have multiplied quickly and people have died. However new countries are announcing their first cases daily. Both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UK Government have continued to update on the latest events concerning the disease and advice. Healthcare workers need to understand and follow the official advice rather than following the stories in the media.
These are facts that are known about COVID-19 so far:
The family of viruses known as coronaviruses more usually cause the common cold, so most people will have developed immunity to some of them. The disease tends to cause respiratory symptoms, such as a runny nose, coughing and sneezing. These symptoms can be either mild or moderate and will not always be accompanied by a fever. However, there are a number of coronaviruses that can make patients very ill. Patients who are likely to become ill are those who already have a compromised immunity system or who have an underlying co-morbidity such as heart disease or COPD. Some coronaviruses that have made the headlines in recent years include SARS (2003) and MERS Co-V (2015).
COVID-19 has the potential to cause pneumonia in patients. About a quarter of the people who have been confirmed as having the disease, have also had a severe form of pneumonia and had to be admitted to intensive care.
Specialist centres have been set up to treat and isolate people who have travelled back from affected areas. People who have travelled from hotspots for the disease are urged to call 111 if they start to develop respiratory symptoms or a fever.
NHS managers are taking steps to protect healthcare staff who are on the frontline of nursing patients with the disease. There should be safety and infection control measures in place, including the safe wearing and removal of personal protective equipment or PPE.
If healthcare workers are at possible risk from the disease, themselves, either through travel or through a family member has recently returned from a trip to a high-risk area, then they should notify their line manager if they have already returned to work or both their line manager and occupational health manager if they are not yet returned to work. The managers will advise if further restrictions need to be put in place.
If a healthcare worker has been exposed to a confirmed case of COVID-19, then they will be advised to isolate themselves at home for 14 days after they have returned to the UK. If they develop symptoms, then they will require clinical assessment and should notify NHS 111 or their UK country equivalent before notifying their employer.
Healthcare workers who have not developed symptoms can continue to work as usual, but need to monitor their own health and notify the healthcare service through NHS 111 etc if symptoms should develop. Risk assessments may be carried out which could recommend exclusion from work and self-isolation.
If healthcare workers have not developed symptoms, or had symptoms but tested negative and then the symptoms have subsided, then they are able to return to work. Those healthcare workers who still have symptoms will be assessed individually as to when they can return to work.
Public Health England can offer individual advice to occupational health departments if required.