Shortages of PPE in care homes fuelled the spread of coronavirus during the height of the pandemic, according to University of East Anglia research.
While a lack of face masks and eye protection, in particular, exacerbated outbreaks, care homes with a high number of non-care staff were more vulnerable to the virus entering the premises in the first place, according to the study. However, experts found that ‘this was much less important than whether they had shortages of PPE’.
The researchers compared the prevalence of Covid-19 with PPE stock levels across 248 care homes in Norfolk in April and May, using data from the Capacity Tracker database, which was set up to help flag and address shortages.
They also considered staffing, and found that the risk of Covid-19 entering a care home increased six-fold at places that employed between 11 and 20 non-care workers, such as cooks, maintenance people and admin staff. This increased to ten-fold at homes employing 21-30 non-care workers, and almost 19-fold at providers employing more than 30.
Lead researcher Dr Julii Brainard said: ‘This is really interesting because these are not the people who are directly involved in the care of residents. We don’t know exactly why this is the case, but it may have been down to low use of PPE among these employees, which means they were more likely to pass on the infection to other staff or during brief time spent near residents.
‘Alternatively, non-care workers may be more likely to work part time and possibly work across several locations,’ she added.
Of the 248 care homes looked at, just under 10% had definite or suspected cases of Covid-19, according to the researchers.
‘PPE supplies to UK care homes have increased since our monitoring period,’ Dr Brainard said, which has probably changed the balance of future risk factors.
‘Although our research clearly indicated the importance of PPE to reduce disease spread, we believe that infection prevention and reduction needs to be more multifaceted than simply supplying adequate PPE and training to use it.’
There must be more work done to address low pay and job insecurity, which leads to many care home employees working across multiple settings for income security, she added. This leads to an increased chance of contracting and carrying the virus across care homes.
The study did not look into the counts of agency workers, who are most likely to work across multiple homes, which means the issue could be worse than the study shows.
In late April, 40% of coronavirus deaths in England and Wales were among care home residents, according to ONS figures.