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Many nurses and other healthcare staff in the UK may already have been infected with Covid-19 but not diagnosed at the time, according to a new study.
Research led by the University of East Anglia in collaboration with University College London found a high proportion of staff experienced a loss of taste or smell earlier this year as the pandemic took off.
“Cases like this most likely went undiagnosed at the time because of a lack of awareness about smell loss as a symptom”
However, this was before loss of taste or smell – anosmia – was added to the official list of Covid-19 symptoms by Public Health England.
Questionnaires completed by more than 260 staff at Barts Health NHS Trust in April show nearly two thirds said they had experienced anosmia at some point from mid-February and mid-April.
Yet less than a third – about 28% – were tested, with tests limited to those with a new continuous cough or high temperature.
In all just 56 came back with a positive test result, show the findings published in the journal Lancet Microbe.
Evidence has shown that loss of smell may be the only symptom of Covid-19 or accompanied by only mild symptoms with anyone experiencing anosmia now required to self-isolate and take a test.
The researchers said their findings suggested many healthcare staff may have had Covid-19 but this was not picked up.
“A large proportion of healthcare workers may have already been infected with Covid-19, with only mild symptoms,” said senior author Professor Carl Philpott, from the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School.
“Cases like this most likely went undiagnosed at the time because of a lack of awareness about smell loss as a symptom,” he said.
While the research was conducted at just one trust he said the research team would expect to see similar results at other NHS trusts.
“This is really important because healthcare professionals are at the frontline of the pandemic and are at high risk of both contracting and spreading coronavirus,” said Professor Philpott.
“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,” he added.
The study also involved a follow-up survey in May of those affected by anosmia in which nearly half – 47% – reported their sense of smell and taste had completely recovered.
A further 42% said they had partially recovered their sense of smell or taste. However, just over 7% said they still suffered from anosmia.