Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus transmission among health care workers: Implication for infection control

Sarah H Alfaraj, Jaffar A Al-Tawfiq, Talal A Altuwaijri, Marzouqa Alanazi, Nojoom Alzahrani, Ziad A Memish
American Journal of Infection Control 2018, 46 (2): 165-168

BACKGROUND: Many outbreaks of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) have occurred in health care settings and involved health care workers (HCWs). We describe the occurrence of an outbreak among HCWs and attempt to characterize at-risk exposures to improve future infection control interventions.

METHODS: This study included an index case and all HCW contacts. All contacts were screened for MERS-CoV using polymerase chain reaction.

RESULTS: During the study period in 2015, the index case was a 30-year-old Filipino nurse who had a history of unprotected exposure to a MERS-CoV-positive case on May 15, 2015, and had multiple negative tests for MERS-CoV. Weeks later, she was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis and MERS-CoV infection. A total of 73 staff were quarantined for 14 days, and nasopharyngeal swabs were taken on days 2, 5, and 12 postexposure. Of those contacts, 3 (4%) were confirmed positive for MERS-CoV. An additional 18 staff were quarantined and had MERS-CoV swabs. A fourth case was confirmed positive on day 12. Subsequent contact investigations revealed a fourth-generation transmission. Only 7 (4.5%) of the total 153 contacts were positive for MERS-CoV.

CONCLUSIONS: The role of HCWs in MERS-CoV transmission is complex. Although most MERS-CoV-infected HCWs are asymptomatic or have mild disease, fatal infections can occur and HCWs can play a major role in propagating health care facility outbreaks. This investigation highlights the need to continuously review infection control guidance relating to the role of HCWs in MERS-CoV transmission in health care outbreaks, especially as it relates to the complex questions on definition of risky exposures, who to test, and the frequency of MERS-CoV testing; criteria for who to quarantine and for how long; and clearance and return to active duty criteria.

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