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COVID-19 undiagnosed in many nurses, study suggests

Mild cases were missed before loss of taste or smell was added to coronavirus symptoms
Picture shows a medic standing next to a car conducting a COVID-19 test at a temporary testing centre at Watford General Hospital

Mild cases were missed before loss of taste or smell was added to coronavirus symptoms

A large proportion of nurses and other NHS staff may have been infected with COVID-19 and gone undiagnosed, researchers say.

A study published in the journal Lancet Microbe found a high prevalence of cases of anosmia loss of the sense of smell in healthcare workers in the months before Public Health England added loss of or change to sense of smell and taste as a COVID-19 symptom in May.

Researchers led by the University of East Anglia in collaboration with University College London set out to find out how widespread anosmia was among healthcare workers.

Those with only anosmia were not eligible for testing

In total, 262 staff from Londons Barts Health NHS Trust completed a questionnaire in the week of

Mild cases were missed before loss of taste or smell was added to coronavirus symptoms

Picture shows a medic standing next to a car conducting a COVID-19 test at a temporary testing centre at Watford General Hospital
Picture: Shutterstock

A large proportion of nurses and other NHS staff may have been infected with COVID-19 and gone undiagnosed, researchers say.

A study published in the journal Lancet Microbe found a high prevalence of cases of anosmia – loss of the sense of smell – in healthcare workers in the months before Public Health England added loss of or change to sense of smell and taste as a COVID-19 symptom in May.

Researchers led by the University of East Anglia in collaboration with University College London set out to find out how widespread anosmia was among healthcare workers.

Those with only anosmia were not eligible for testing

In total, 262 staff from London’s Barts Health NHS Trust completed a questionnaire in the week of 17-23 April.

At that time, COVID-19 testing among NHS workers was limited to those displaying symptoms of a new continuous cough and/or a high temperature. Those with only anosmia as a symptom would not have been required to isolate or have been eligible for testing. 

Nevertheless, 73 (27.9%) of the participants had been tested for COVID-19, with 56 (76.7%) confirmed positive. 

‘They were almost five times more likely to test positive’

Professor Carl Philpott, from the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School, said nearly two thirds, or 168, of the participants had lost their sense of smell or taste at some point between mid-February and mid-April. 

‘We also found a strong association between smell loss and the positive COVID-19 test results, with those who had lost their sense of smell being almost five times more likely to test positive.

‘This suggests that a large proportion of healthcare workers may have already been infected with COVID-19, with only mild symptoms.’

Early recognition of anosmia needed to prevent further spread of the disease

Professor Philpott said he would expect to see similar results from other NHS trusts.

‘There is a need for awareness and early recognition of anosmia as a means to identify, urgently test and isolate affected healthcare workers in order to prevent further spread of disease.’

The survey has also been running in four other hospitals, with responses from more than 1,000 healthcare workers due to be published soon.


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