Protecting health care workers in the COVID-19 pandemic

As UHN’s frontline workers fight COVID-19, a donor-funded research study is providing them with regular testing. The goal is to better understand the effects of the disease on health care staff in order to provide support and care for those who are caring for our communities during this pandemic.

The study, titled Research Platform to Screen and Protect Healthcare Workers – or RESPECT for short, will determine how common asymptomatic COVID-19 infection is among health care workers at UHN.

“We urgently need to understand the disease and to quickly develop and implement screening strategies to protect our patients and health care workers,” says Dr. Deepali Kumar, a clinician investigator within the Soham & Shaila Ajmera Family Transplant Centre and the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute at Toronto General Hospital, who is leading the study.

Asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic individuals can transmit COVID-19, which can be a significant risk in health care settings, especially in long-term care facilities. Not properly protecting these workers puts both staff and patients at risk.

“As Canada’s largest research hospital, UHN is uniquely positioned to rapidly initiate, conduct and coordinate multi-site research,” says Dr. Kumar. “We will use our expertise in supporting multi-site clinical trials to standardize the collection of biospecimens from health care workers and deliver them to research laboratories for testing.”

RESPECT will contribute to the fight against COVID-19 by:

  • Protecting health care workers through early surveillance and detection of COVID-19
  • Establishing a centralized system to measure the prevalence of COVID-19 in health care workers, and to deliver test results back to individuals
  • Finding ways to share data and test results in real time
  • Developing alternative COVID-19 tests that do not use precious clinical laboratory resources needed for existing testing in the community

In the first week after launching RESPECT, more than 1,100 health care workers immediately registered for the study and demand is unprecedented.

How RESPECT works

Health care workers at UHN and affiliated long-term care facilities will be tested for COVID-19 on a weekly basis for up to eight weeks. Individuals who test positive may then be directed to self-isolate, preventing further spread of the virus to other health care workers and to patients.

Through RESPECT, researchers are also developing novel tools – clinical-grade testing technology that is fast and accurate – so they can more rapidly screen, identify and monitor health care workers who are infected with COVID-19, but who are not showing symptoms. This technology will be high-throughput, meaning it can be used to screen hundreds or thousands of individuals at once for COVID-19 infection.

“RESPECT will help hospitals and communities revise their own pandemic planning for future outbreaks, for example, by adjusting screening timelines; screening earlier and more broadly, and not just in patients; and implementing mitigating behaviours earlier,” says Dr. Kumar. “It will also help to identify antibodies in the blood that can be used to develop new diagnostics and vaccines through data sharing with other trials and correlation with clinical indications.”

Caring for health care workers’ mental health

RESPECT will also provide an opportunity to better understand the mental health needs of health care workers. In response to a growing mental health crisis among health care workers during COVID-19, UHN’s Centre for Mental Health has developed and launched a mental health care program tailored for hospital staff – called UHN-CARES – that consists of therapist and self-directed resources.

Having a better understanding of the current symptom burden experienced by health care workers will allow UHN to adapt care in response to staff needs, quickly share findings with other health care organizations, and will aid international scientific efforts on mental health care.

“Data collected through RESPECT will offer an in-depth accounting of the nature and severity of emotional distress currently experienced by health care workers – and how we can best support them through the pandemic,” says Dr. Kumar.

Expanding RESPECT across Canada

Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation has raised significant funds to date, which will enable the trial to proceed at UHN and affiliated long-term care facilities. Clearly, with the incredible and immediate response the launch of RESPECT received, there is a strong desire among health care workers for this type of program.

To meet this need, Dr. Kumar and her team are ready to scale up the program to offer it to health care providers across the country. To fund this next phase of RESPECT requires additional support to enable expansion to eight additional hospitals across the GTA and Ontario.

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