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April 23, 2020

Rutgers launches nation's largest study of health care workers exposed to COVID-19

Early results show large gender disparity in coronavirus infections

Illness Coronavirus
Rutgers COVID-19 Healthcare Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

Rutgers University will test hundreds of health care workers in New Jersey for COVID-19 as part of the nation's largest study of coronavirus infection rates among those treating patients in hospital settings.

Front-line workers treating COVID-19 patients have been hailed as heroes not just because of their work in saving lives, but because they are exposed every day in high-risk encounters during the unfolding coronavirus pandemic.

A new research study out of Rutgers University's Biomedical and Health Services division will be the nation's largest prospective look at infection rates among health care workers.

The study will utilize a series of clinical trials that explore new drug treatments, antibody testing and long-term health tracking of the disease.

Approximately 550 health care providers and 300 non-health care providers from Rutgers, University Hospital in Newark and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick will participate in the study. With more than 7,000 health care workers employed by Rutgers across New Jersey, the pool of study volunteers may expand as data is collected.

Some of the workers in the study have had direct exposure to COVID-19 patients, while others have not. The goal is to determine infection rates among those with and without direct patient exposure over a six-month period.

The trial also aims to figure out which workers develop immunity and thus become able to deliver care with fewer restrictions and risks.

“Because the pandemic is affecting our hospitals as we are providing care at the front line, we may be able to discover what puts people at greatest risk for acquiring the infection and possibly determine why most get mild illness but some become severely ill,” said Dr. Martin J. Blaser, director of Rutgers University’s Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine.

Those enrolled in the study will be tested for COVID-19 using the saliva test developed by Rutgers' RUCDR Infinite Biologics, which recently received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. The saliva test, the first in the nation, has been eyed for broad use in the United States as the pandemic continues.

Initial results from the study have shown a gender disparity among health care workers. Women have been infected at a rate of 13 times their male counterparts, a gap the researchers believe is related to the prevalence of women in the nursing profession.

“Collectively, our studies will provide a wealth of data designed to better arm the health care workforce to minimize self-risk while improving care to Americans in this pandemic crisis,” said Dr. Reynold Panettieri Jr., director of the Rutgers Institute for Translational Medicine and Science.

As part of the study, Rutgers has launched two clinical trials for patients. The first will examine whether azithromycin combined with hydroxychloroquine is better than hydroxychloroquine alone for treatment of patients with symptomatic positive cases of COVID-19. Both drugs are FDA-approved, but currently carry risks for treatment of COVID-19 patients.

The second clinical trial will focus on asymptomatic cases of patients who test positive for COVID-19, deploying the same drugs to see whether the viral infection can be decreased.

“Health care workers throughout the world are on the front lines battling COVID-19,” said Dr. Brian Strom, chancellor of Rutgers University's Biomedical and Health Services. “Our hope is that this study and other scientific developments can give state, national and global leaders the evidence-based tools to ultimately end this pandemic.”

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