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OSLO, Norway: The widespread availability of vaccines in developed nations has significantly changed the risk of dentists contracting SARS-CoV-2 in a workplace setting. Prior to this, however, dentists and other workers in other occupations that typically involve close contact were widely believed to be at a relatively high risk of developing COVID-19. A new study out of Norway has sought to examine this idea further by comparing how this risk differed across occupations between the country’s two COVID-19 waves in 2020.
The study was conducted by researchers from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, who used data from an emergency preparedness register for COVID-19 to form an observational study covering the entire Norwegian population between 26 February and 18 December 2020. The occupational groups chosen—health (including dentists), teaching, retail, tourism and travel, catering, and recreation and beauty—were selected based on their high likelihood of direct, close contact with other people.
The researchers estimated and then compared the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases per 1,000 employed individuals for each of the country’s two COVID-19 waves—the first spanning from 26 February to 17 July and the second from 18 July to 18 December. In total, just over 3.5 million Norwegian residents of working age were studied. By 18 December, 30,003 (0.8%) had developed COVID-19 and 1,550 of these patients (5.2%) required hospitalisation.
“For any comparison of our findings to those in other countries, it should be noted that transmission of COVID-19 has been relatively low in Norway when compared with other countries,” the authors wrote.
According to the study’s findings, during the first wave, dentists, doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals were approximately two to 3.5 times more likely to develop COVID-19 than were all other Norwegians of working age. During the second wave, however, whereas doctors were moderately more likely to test positive for SARS-CoV-2, dentists were found to be no more likely to contract the virus than the average employed individual.
The authors noted multiple potential explanations for this reduction in risk for healthcare professionals in the second COVID-19 wave. One such explanation was that differences in test criteria in Norway resulted in the inclusion of milder confirmed COVID-19 cases during the second wave instead of only those with a severe form of the disease.
“However, it is also possible that health personnel have implemented better infection control measures, resulting in fewer healthcare workers (e.g. nurses, dentists, and others) being infected as the pandemic progressed,” the authors noted.
Dentists possibly at a higher risk
In a similar study that focused on dental professionals in the UK, researchers from the University of Birmingham found that close contact with patients put dental professionals at a higher risk of developing COVID-19 during the first wave of the pandemic. In addition, they discovered that a large number of dental professionals had SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in their blood.
The findings of the Norwegian study suggested that dentists could be more likely than other workers to develop acute COVID-19. In their discussion, the authors wrote that, though there were “few cases and considerable uncertainty in our analyses of COVID-19-related hospitalisation, our results may indicate that dentists are at increased risk of severe COVID-19, raising important new hypotheses regarding the relevance of viral load or infectious doses in causing severe disease”.
The study, titled “Occupational risk of COVID-19 in the first versus second epidemic wave in Norway, 2020”, was published online on 7 October 2021 in the Eurosurveillance journal.
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