Why haven’t I caught COVID?: The question half of GPs are asking

Yasmin Clarke

writer

Yasmin Clarke

Data analyst; Journalist

Yasmin Clarke

 

Healthed’s survey team was struck by the dramatically lower rates of COVID among GPs.

Every week, GPs see dozens of patients face-to-face, putting themselves in the firing line for any contagious infections for which those patients may be seeking treatment.

Therefore, we might expect GPs to have a slightly higher rate of COVID-19 infection than the general population.

But that’s not what the data shows.

Healthed’s exclusive survey data reveals that more than half of GPs have not yet had COVID – 52% of 319 GPs surveyed.

The question many GPs are asking themselves is: why are COVID infection rates among GPs so low?

Dr Gary Grohmann, an infectious disease expert, told Healthed that around eight in every ten Australians are now thought to have had COVID-19.

This latest estimate is based on a seroprevalence survey study by National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance and the Kirby Institute, which was released on 3 November.

In the UK, that figure is up at 90% for the general population.

GPs had limited access to appropriate PPE at the start of the pandemic but have since been quite rigorous with masking, and masks have been mandatory in GP clinics in many states.

However, the PPE required in the clinic doesn’t explain why GPs aren’t catching covid from  close contact with family and friends, says Grohmann.

One paper published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine in November last year, found that people with higher levels of education had a lower chance of catching COVID-19.

GPs may be at less risk of catching infectious diseases due to higher levels of medical education, which would help them protect themselves, says Grohmann, who is also an independent consultant with the WHO on influenza related projects.

In a recent article published in The Conversation, viral immunologist and respiratory diseases expert Associate Professor Nathan Bartlett said people with mild COVID symptoms may test repeatedly with RATs but still miss the window where they have a high enough viral load for a positive test result.

Around half of people with omicron have an asymptomatic infection, and therefore would incorrectly report not having had COVID in surveys.

So, it could be that many GPs have had COVID but just aren’t aware of it. (Although that group of GPs who were asymptomatic or had mild COVID symptoms and therefore didn’t detect their infection using a RAT would be the same proportion as the general population so it doesn’t explain why reported infection rates are so low among GPs).

Risk of COVID infection can be affected by many factors, including your genes, gender, age, diet, sleep patterns, stress levels, history of other infections and illnesses, medications, vaccination status, and level of virus exposure, Bartlett says.

“So it’s unsurprising the people most susceptible to severe COVID-19 are those with less effective immunity because they have chronic diseases, are immune-suppressed or elderly,” he says.

However, “SARS-CoV-2 has proven itself to be particularly adept at evolving to generate viral variants that can evade our established immune protection”, he says. “In addition, our immune protection is not stable and will begin to wane after a couple of months if not boosted by vaccination or infection.”

In a recent Healthed survey, almost all GPs (96%) said they are fully vaccinated in line with ATAGI recommendations. As COVID vaccines reduce the risk of transmission, high vaccination rates may be protecting GPs.

More research is needed, but it’s “plausible” that lifetime exposure to similar coronaviruses could be conferring some protection against SARS-CoV-2, says Bartlett.

For most people who have not yet had COVID, “it has been a combination of vaccination, leveraging a healthy immune system, sensible decisions and luck that have kept them COVID-free thus far.”

 

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Yasmin Clarke

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Yasmin Clarke

Data analyst; Journalist

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