Medics are more likely to catch the coronavirus ‘because they get a higher dose of the infection’


Li Wenliang, 34, died from coronavirus in China. He was one of a group of doctors in China’s virus epicentre who shared posts on social media warning of a Sars-like virus spreading in the city in December.

Front line medical staff and priests appear to be more likely to fall seriously ill or die from coronavirus, figures show.  

In Italy, nearly one in ten of its near-60,000 cases of the killer virus is a healthcare worker, while 23 deaths have been reported among medical staff.

And at least 60 priests have succumbed to the illness, just weeks after Pope Francis encouraged clerics to visit COVID-19 patients and support medics.

Meanwhile in mainland China, a 29-year-old and a 34-year-old doctor are among 26 front line medics known to have died from the disease.  

At least 3,300 of China’s 80,000 cases since the outbreak began in late December have been healthcare workers. 

Doctors and nurses are vulnerable to the virus because they are repeatedly exposed to higher doses of the bug than the general public.

And the majority of priests who have passed away were over the age of 70 and had underlying health conditions – two factors which increase the chance of dying. 

It is unclear how many medics in the UK and US have been infected, but it is expected to be in the hundreds already.

Here, experts tell MailOnline why healthcare workers and priests appear to be more vulnerable to COVID-19’s killer symptoms.

Doctors and nurses are vulnerable to the virus because they are repeatedly exposed to higher doses of the bug than the general public. And the majority of priests who have passed away were over the age of 70 and had underlying health conditions - two factors which increase the chance of dying

Doctors and nurses are vulnerable to the virus because they are repeatedly exposed to higher doses of the bug than the general public. And the majority of priests who have passed away were over the age of 70 and had underlying health conditions – two factors which increase the chance of dying

A patient wearing a face mask is wheeled into La Paz hospital on March 23 in Madrid

A patient wearing a face mask is wheeled into La Paz hospital on March 23 in Madrid

French rescue team wearing protective suits carry a patient on a stretcher from Mulhouse hospital

French rescue team wearing protective suits carry a patient on a stretcher from Mulhouse hospital

Healthcare workers 

Doctors and nurses are susceptible to catching coronavirus because it is highly contagious and they are exposed to it more often than the general public. 

Close proximity to patients means they receive a higher dose of virus, which allows the bug to penetrate the lungs more deeply and frequently, experts say. 

Doctors may also fail to fight off the virus because their immune systems are weakened due to being overworked and not getting enough sleep amid the pandemic.

Luigi Ablondi, 66, the former general manager of Crema hospital died at the Cremasco hospital on Monday, it was revealed today

Luigi Ablondi, 66, the former general manager of Crema hospital died at the Cremasco hospital in Italy on Monday. He became one of Italy’s 23 medics to die from COVID-19

Luigi Frusciante

Luigi Frusciante, who were in their 70s, both came out of retirement in order to help fight the growing coronavirus crisis in his community in Italy

SO WHY ARE DOCTORS AND NURSES NOT DYING IN THEIR DROVES? 

Even though a disproportionate number of healthcare workers appear to catch COVID-19, it seems that very few actually die from it.

For example, around 5,000 medics have caught the disease but only 23 have died.

In China, 3,300 healthcare workers have been infected but just 13 succumbed to the virus.

It is ‘probably’ because front line medics are normally in their 20s, 30s or 40s, experts say.

Younger adults are much more likely to fight off the illness and to avoid its killer symptoms.

A lack of protective gear – a problem which medics in the UK, Italy and China have all struggled with – exacerbates the risk.    

Ian Jones, professor of virology at the University of Reading, told MailOnline: ‘It’s always a bell shaped curve and although the old and infirm are the majority risk group those with a higher incidence of infection will also feature.

‘That is, more front line health workers get infected than the general population so however low the risk to younger people they will disproportionately show it. 

‘It may also be that because of close proximity they receive a higher dose of virus than average and so the virus penetrates the lower lung more frequently. The lack of PPE [personal protective equipment] would exacerbate this.’  

Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases professor at the University of East Anglia, said: ‘It is a race between the virus and our immune system. Giving the virus a head start by a very heavy exposure dose as would be the case in doctors or nurses without enough personal protective equipment or by the body having a weakened/delayed immune system as would be the case in many elderly would lead to the virus winning more often.’ 

Giuseppe Finzi

Italian doctors Giuseppe Finzi also died of coronavirus, driving up the country’s death toll

Priests were encouraged by Pope Francis to visit coronavirus patients and support healthcare workers and volunteers during the outbreak

Priests were encouraged by Pope Francis to visit coronavirus patients and support healthcare workers and volunteers during the outbreak

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE AGES OF CORONAVIRUS PATIENTS WHO GET INFECTED? 

Chinese health officials carried out the biggest ever study on the never-before-seen strain of the virus, using data from 72,000 cases.

Results showed the SARS-CoV-2 virus posed the greatest threat to older patients and those with underlying conditions, such as cancer and heart disease. 

AGE

0-9

10-19

20-29

30-39

40-49

50-59

60-69

70-79

80+ 

DEATHS (%)

0 (0.0%)

1 (0.1%)

7 (0.7%)

18 (1.8%) 

38 (3.7%)

130 (12.7%)

309 (30.2%)

312 (30.5%) 

208 (20.3%) 

Doctors in China believe the coronavirus has mutated into two strains, one more aggressive than the other.

Some believe doctors may be exposed to the lethal strain more often than the general public.

Experts haven’t ruled it out, but say there is not yet enough evidence to support that this.

Priests 

The majority of the 60 priests who have died so far in Italy have been over the age of 70 with underlying health conditions.

These two factors weaken the immune system and increase the chance of death from COVID-19.

They were also encouraged by Pope Francis to visit coronavirus patients and support healthcare workers and volunteers during the outbreak.

Mingling with contagious people may have led to the spike in deaths in the Catholic Church. 

Italy’s healthcare system has also struggled to cope with the huge surge in patients needing breathing assistance. 

It means that many doctors have had to select which patients get access to ventilators based on their chance of survival.

Those who are over the age of 70 and have underlying health conditions, such as the priests, may be being overlooked.

NHS doctors treating coronavirus patients are being forced to buy face masks from DIY stores and BUILDING SITES amid nationwide shortage

Frontline NHS doctors are being forced to buy face masks from DIY stores because of nationwide shortages amid the coronavirus crisis.

The British Medical Association said some of its members were so desperate they had approached building site workers and asked to borrow industrial dust masks.

Protective gear such as masks, gowns, goggles and gloves, are essential for limiting the spread of the highly infectious disease which lurks in the air for hours and survives on objects for days. 

Health chiefs have confirmed there are problems with dwindling supplies globally, which is having knock-on effects with distribution.

The BMA says ministers must remember it is their duty to protect staff as the epidemic in the UK worsens.

It also urged for testing of health care workers immediately in order to avoid medics unnecessarily self-isolating and leaving hospitals under-staffed.

NHS doctors treating coronavirus patients are being forced to buy masks from DIY stores amid shortages, according to the British Medical Association. Pictured, a health care worker at Virginia Hospital Center, US, putting on personal protective equipment (PPE)

NHS doctors treating coronavirus patients are being forced to buy masks from DIY stores amid shortages, according to the British Medical Association. Pictured, a health care worker at Virginia Hospital Center, US, putting on personal protective equipment (PPE)

The BMA said: 'We are hearing of staff trying to buy masks from DIY stores in desperation because they are not being provided with it by their employers. This is unacceptable.' (stock image)

Protective gear, also known as PPE, includes masks, gowns, goggles and gloves, is essential for limiting spread of an infectious disease.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the BMA chair of council, said: ‘Frontline staff must have the proper personal protective equipment if they are treating patients with Covid-19’

RETIRED NHS STAFF TOLD TO COME BACK – EVEN THOUGH THERE ISN’T PROTECTIVE CLOTHING TO PROTECT THEM

Up to 65,000 ex-doctors and nurses are being told ‘your NHS needs you’ to fight the biggest health crisis in more than a century.

Anyone who quit or retired in the past three years is being urged by ministers to return to help tackle coronavirus.

But at the same time those already on the frontlines say they can’t get their hands on the proper masks and protective equipment to stop them catching the disease. 

People fear the retired coming back to work could be risky because older people are known to be most likely to die if they catch the coronavirus, and depriving them of the right equipment could be a recipe for disaster.

One said on Twitter: ‘You are expecting retired doctors and nurses to [be] kamikaze pilots, they are in the most at risk group.’

Another added: ‘What could possibly go wrong?’

Emails, which will go out this morning, echo Lord Kitchener’s Your Country Needs You recruitment poster from the First World War. 

Staff will be allowed to re-register immediately with either the General Medical Council, the doctors’ professional watchdog, or the Nursing and Midwifery Council, its equivalent for nurses. 

NHS officials have not put a figure on the number of former doctors and nurses they expect to bring back but last week, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he hoped to ‘get our hands on as many as possible’.

All returning staff will be paid fully according to the amount of time they can work and will be given brief training and induction. The NHS is also allowing some of the most experienced trainee doctors and nurses to join the front line.

Those in the final year of their degrees will be allowed to take up paid roles without having to pass their final set of exams.

The BMA said it had heard many of its members do not have the right personal protective equipment (PPE), or if they do, it is in very short supply.

Doctors, both in GP practises and hospitals, as well as patients are all at risk if there is inadequate PPE.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the BMA chair of council, said: ‘Frontline staff must have the proper personal protective equipment if they are treating patients with Covid-19 or suspected to have Covid-19.

‘We are hearing of staff trying to buy masks from DIY stores in desperation because they are not being provided with it by their employers. This is unacceptable.

‘The Government must find a reliable way to increase the production and distribution of PPE [personal protective equipment].

‘If any healthcare worker, treating someone with Covid-19 was to become ill, or worse, due to a lack of PPE, the consequences will be dire and the impact on patient care catastrophic.’

England’s chief doctors Professor Chris Whitty has said NHS colleagues are right to complain they are facing shortages.

‘I completely understand the points that my colleagues in the NHS are concerned about on PPE, they write to me regularly about this and entirely reasonably,’ he said yesterday.

‘This is a major strand of work for much of the Department of Health and Social Care.

‘In the short term this is about making sure the PPE stocks that there are go to the right places, in the longer term … there will be a global issue we need to put together,’ he added, noting stocks are running low in some countries.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS providers, said there was not a shortage of PPE, but a ‘logistical problem’ in distributing it.

He told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme: ‘We have obviously been talking to national NHS leaders and what they say to us is there are sufficient national stocks of personal protection equipment but there is currently a problem in terms of the logistical distribution of them.

‘What’s happened is that because of the sudden and understandable spike in demand it is taking a bit of time for the logistical distribution to catch up.

‘But the bit that they are saying to us is there are sufficient national stocks, the issue is actually ensuring that those stocks reach the frontline in the right numbers, in the right places, at the right time.’

His comments came after Dr Paul Evans, a GP in Gateshead, told the programme that frontline staff did not have PPE that ‘inspires the confidence of the staff’ who are seeing patients who potentially have COVID-19.

Dr Evans said: ‘I would suggest that asking health professionals to see patients with a potentially lethal aerosol or airborne transmitted illness without adequate PPE draws an uncomfortable parallel with a decade or so ago sending soldiers to Afghanistan and Iraq in Snatch Land Rovers that were referred to by the troops at the time as mobile coffins.’

England's chief doctors Professor Chris Whitty has said NHS colleagues are right to complain they are facing shortages. Picutred, a medical worker wearing full protective clothing treating a patient suffering from coronavirus disease in Cremona, Italy

England’s chief doctors Professor Chris Whitty has said NHS colleagues are right to complain they are facing shortages. Picutred, a medical worker wearing full protective clothing treating a patient suffering from coronavirus disease in Cremona, Italy

Health chiefs have confirmed there are problems with dwindling supplies globally. Pictured, health care workers put on their personal protective equipment before people arrive at a drive through testing site for coronavirus in Arlington, Virginia

Health chiefs have confirmed there are problems with dwindling supplies globally. Pictured, health care workers put on their personal protective equipment before people arrive at a drive through testing site for coronavirus in Arlington, Virginia

It follows GP Faye Kirkland’s comments to the BBC that some doctors are having to resort to using cooking aprons because they hadn’t been sent enough disposable single-use plastic aprons. 

And it was revealed earlier this week that doctors were being sent face masks that expired four years ago.

Boxes of masks handed out to multiple GP surgeries by NHS England are printed with an expiry date of 2016, but in an apparent attempt to conceal the issue, stickers showing a later expiry date of 2021 have been placed on top.

GPs suggested it was an apparent attempt to ‘hide’ the original date and admitted they were worried about the quality of equipment being provided.

The Government was forced to deny the masks are unsafe, as the Department of Health and Social Care claimed they have been relabelled after passing ‘stringent tests’.

The BMA have also warned it’s imperative that healthcare workers are tested for the highly infectious coronavirus without further delay.

Government advice says people must self isolate for 14 days if they or a relative has COVID-19 symptoms. It means many vital medics may have to stay at home unnecessarily, adding pressure to an already stretched workforce.

‘In order for the NHS to work as effectively as possible during this time, it’s essential that all healthcare professionals and their families are tested for the virus not only for their protection, but most importantly, their patients,’ said BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey.

‘We understand that priority testing is taking place in some areas for frontline NHS staff, however, it’s clear that this is not yet widespread.

‘The NHS will struggle even more if increasing numbers of staff are forced to remain at home for up to two weeks, not knowing whether they have the virus and therefore not able to care for patients.’

Prime Minister Boris Johnson efforts were working on ‘ramping up daily testing from 5,000 a day, to 10,000 to 25,000 and then up at 250,000’.

It is understood testing will be expanded to frontline health care workers nationwide, currently only being accessed by a fraction.

Frontline staff in North Hampshire are set to have access to testing from 19 March, GP Online reports.

But the BMA has warned that this must be expanded across the UK ‘without delay’.

NHS workers in Scotland are only being tested if they have symptoms, a strategy which has been criticised for failing to protect those most exposed to the virus.

In Wales, hopes have been raised that testing will be rolled out to staff soon.

Dr Robin Howe, incident director for the novel coronavirus outbreak response at Public Health Wales, said: ‘Based on careful risk assessment, a phased rollout of testing will commence starting with healthcare workers involved in frontline patient facing clinical care.’

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