Screening of healthcare workers for SARS-CoV-2 highlights the role of asymptomatic carriage in COVID-19 transmission

Elife. 2020 May 11:9:e58728. doi: 10.7554/eLife.58728.


Significant differences exist in the availability of healthcare worker (HCW) SARS-CoV-2 testing between countries, and existing programmes focus on screening symptomatic rather than asymptomatic staff. Over a 3 week period (April 2020), 1032 asymptomatic HCWs were screened for SARS-CoV-2 in a large UK teaching hospital. Symptomatic staff and symptomatic household contacts were additionally tested. Real-time RT-PCR was used to detect viral RNA from a throat+nose self-swab. 3% of HCWs in the asymptomatic screening group tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. 17/30 (57%) were truly asymptomatic/pauci-symptomatic. 12/30 (40%) had experienced symptoms compatible with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)>7 days prior to testing, most self-isolating, returning well. Clusters of HCW infection were discovered on two independent wards. Viral genome sequencing showed that the majority of HCWs had the dominant lineage B∙1. Our data demonstrates the utility of comprehensive screening of HCWs with minimal or no symptoms. This approach will be critical for protecting patients and hospital staff.

Keywords: COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; emerging pathogens; epidemiology; global health; human; human biology; infectious disease; medicine; occupational health; virology; virus.

Plain language summary

Patients admitted to NHS hospitals are now routinely screened for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), and isolated from other patients if necessary. Yet healthcare workers, including frontline patient-facing staff such as doctors, nurses and physiotherapists, are only tested and excluded from work if they develop symptoms of the illness. However, there is emerging evidence that many people infected with SARS-CoV-2 never develop significant symptoms: these people will therefore be missed by ‘symptomatic-only’ testing. There is also important data showing that around half of all transmissions of SARS-CoV-2 happen before the infected individual even develops symptoms. This means that much broader testing programs are required to spot people when they are most infectious. Rivett, Sridhar, Sparkes, Routledge et al. set out to determine what proportion of healthcare workers was infected with SARS-CoV-2 while also feeling generally healthy at the time of testing. Over 1,000 staff members at a large UK hospital who felt they were well enough to work, and did not fit the government criteria for COVID-19 infection, were tested. Amongst these, 3% were positive for SARS-CoV-2. On closer questioning, around one in five reported no symptoms, two in five very mild symptoms that they had dismissed as inconsequential, and a further two in five reported COVID-19 symptoms that had stopped more than a week previously. In parallel, healthcare workers with symptoms of COVID-19 (and their household contacts) who were self-isolating were also tested, in order to allow those without the virus to quickly return to work and bolster a stretched workforce. Finally, the rates of infection were examined to probe how the virus could have spread through the hospital and among staff – and in particular, to understand whether rates of infection were greater among staff working in areas devoted to COVID-19 patients. Despite wearing appropriate personal protective equipment, healthcare workers in these areas were almost three times more likely to test positive than those working in areas without COVID-19 patients. However, it is not clear whether this genuinely reflects greater rates of patients passing the infection to staff. Staff may give the virus to each other, or even acquire it at home. Overall, this work implies that hospitals need to be vigilant and introduce broad screening programmes across their workforces. It will be vital to establish such approaches before ‘lockdown’ is fully lifted, so healthcare institutions are prepared for any second peak of infections.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Asymptomatic Infections*
  • Betacoronavirus / physiology
  • COVID-19
  • COVID-19 Testing
  • COVID-19 Vaccines
  • Clinical Laboratory Techniques*
  • Coronavirus Infections / diagnosis
  • Coronavirus Infections / epidemiology
  • Coronavirus Infections / transmission
  • Female
  • Health Personnel*
  • Humans
  • Infection Control
  • Male
  • Pandemics
  • Pneumonia, Viral / diagnosis
  • Pneumonia, Viral / epidemiology
  • Pneumonia, Viral / transmission
  • Real-Time Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • United Kingdom / epidemiology