A new study, which aims to determine the prevalence of COVID-19 antibodies in Irish healthcare workers, has begun in St James's Hospital in Dublin and University Hospital Galway (UHG).
The PRECISE Study will look at rates of previous COVID-19 infections in healthcare workers in both of these hospitals.
Over the next two weeks, staff will be invited to have a simple blood test to determine the presence of COVID-19 antibodies. This will then be repeated in six months and the data will be compared.
Participation is open to all staff across all departments in both hospitals and is entirely voluntary.
According to Dr Lorraine Doherty, the HSE's national clinical director for health protection, this study "will help the health service to better understand this new infection, including the risk factors relevant to healthcare workers".
"It will help the health services to broadly estimate the number of healthcare workers that may have some degree of immunity to COVID-19 infection and those that are still at risk of contracting the virus.
"It will identify the proportion of healthcare staff who have the antibodies present, but were asymptomatic and therefore possibly unaware of their exposure to the virus," Dr Doherty said.
She emphasised that all of the information gained from this study "will ultimately help the health services prepare for an increasing number of cases".
Dr Catherine Fleming, a consultant in infectious diseases at UHG and site lead for the PRECISE study noted that COVID-19 is a very infectious virus that seems to spread rapidly indoors when people are in close contact.
"Hospitals are unique environments, with all employees having lives outside the hospital, but also spending long hours at work in close contact with patients, families and co-workers. This puts people who work in hospitals at increased risk of acquiring COVID-19.
"If we can ascertain the number of infections here in UHG, which is in a low-incidence area, determine the areas of risk and then compare with St James's in a high-incidence area, we can learn about how the virus spreads in hospitals," she explained.
Dr Fleming said that researchers hope that this information "will help us protect staff and patients from acquiring COVID-19 in hospital, as we will likely grapple with this virus for at least the coming year".
"While this study is completely voluntary, we would urge as many as possible of our staff to participate, to help us learn more about this virus, which has caused such devastation around the world," she added.
Dr Niamh Allen is a specialist registrar in infectious diseases and is the study's primary investigator. She explained that staff in both hospitals will be invited to complete an online questionnaire confirming their willingness to participate, and providing some information about their type of work, their patient contact, any previous testing for COVID-19, previous symptoms, and living arrangements.
"They will then be able to book a blood test at designated clinics, which will be in place in numerous sites in both hospitals over a 10-day period in October. Should staff wish, they will be able to get the result from their blood test once the laboratory analysis is complete.
"While some staff may find out that there were antibodies to the COVID-19 virus found in their blood, staff will be advised that this does not mean that they have immunity to the virus and should continue to follow all of the HSE's public health advice," she said.
The results will be shared with the Department of Health COVID-19 team and the HSE "to help them plan and make decisions about how to control the spread of the virus. These results will be anonymous.
According to Prof Colm Bergin, a consultant in infectious diseases and site lead in St James's Hospital, this study "is a unique opportunity for staff to take part in research that we hope will help us understand more about how the COVID-19 infection spreads".
"The results may also provide us with valuable insights into how people may respond to any future vaccine. Our aim is to curb the spread of the virus and make our hospitals safer environments for our patients and staff," he said.
The blood tests for the study will take place from October 14-23. Bookings and the online questionnaire are now available and the plan is to repeat the study with consenting participants after six months to see if the levels of antibodies have changed over time.
There are around 4,500 staff members in St James's Hospital and around 4,000 staff in UHG.
Discussions on this topic are now closed.