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The spread of COVID-19 inside care homes has been fuelled by a lack of personal protection equipment (PPE) – according to new research from the University of East Anglia.

Researchers studying the spread of the virus in Norfolk care homes found that once the virus was present, its spread was most strongly linked to a lack of PPE, particularly facemasks and eye protection.

But the introduction of the virus into the homes wasn’t dependent on PPE but rather the total numbers of non-care staff working there. 

COVID-19 was more likely to get into residential care homes when there were more non-care staff such as maintenance people, cooks and those in administrative roles.

The research is the first to observe how COVID-19 seems to enter and spread through care homes. Due to the rapid-response nature of this study, it has not yet been peer reviewed.

The team hope their work will help inform strategies to control the spread of COVID-19 and other contagious diseases in care homes.

Infectious diseases expert Prof Paul Hunter, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: “COVID-19 has disproportionately more severe outcomes among the elderly and it has swept through residential care homes in the UK and abroad, with a high number of deaths.

“About 40% of all COVID-19 deaths in the UK in early May 2020 were among care home residents.

“But preventing and controlling infectious disease outbreaks in care settings has many challenges. The sector is under-funded in many countries and staffed by low-paid workers who may have insufficient training or experience in infection control.

“It’s well known that here in the UK, care home workers were not supplied with sufficient personal protection equipment (PPE) such as masks, gloves and protective gowns early in the COVID-19 outbreak. This lack of PPE was widely suspected to have contributed to the spread of the disease and deaths in care homes.

“We wanted to see if lack of PPE could be linked to spread of COVID-19 in a real dataset of Norfolk care homes, and if any other factors seemed to be at play.  We found that once COVID-19 was in a care home then the outbreak was worse where more care staff were employed, but this was much less important than whether they had shortages in certain types of PPE.”

The research team looked at staffing levels and PPE availability in 248 care homes across Norfolk in April and early May using data available in the care home Capacity Tracker database, set up to help care homes flag their PPE needs and shortages.

The UEA researchers compared the prevalence of COVID-19 with the availability of aprons, eye protection, gloves, masks and hand sanitiser. They also looked at the number and types of staff working within the homes, including nurses, other face-to-face care workers and staff not involved directly with care. 

Lead researcher Dr Julii Brainard, also from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, said: “Of the 248 care homes in Norfolk with complete data, 25 had definite or suspected cases of COVID-19 – about 10%.

“We found that the number of non-care staff - such as cooks, maintenance people, and administrative staff - was linked with a higher risk of COVID-19 entering a care home.

“This is really interesting because these are not the people who are directly involved in the care of residents. We don’t know exactly why this is the case, but it may have been down to low use of PPE among these employees, which means they were more likely to pass on the infection to other staff or during brief time spent near residents. 

“Alternatively, non-care workers may be more likely to work part time and possibly work across several locations,” she added.

The risk of COVID-19 entering a care home was just over six times higher in care homes that employed between 11 and 20 non-care workers, nearly 10 times higher in homes employing 21-30 non care workers, and almost 19 times higher in homes employing more than 30 non-care workers.

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