The Mayo Clinic infections happened over the last two weeks at facilities in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, three hard-hit states.

By Claire Gillespie
November 19, 2020
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Right now, as COVID-19 continues to spread, we need frontline health care workers to stay fit and healthy. But nobody is immune from the coronavirus, and doctors and nurses may even be more at risk, considering that they are more likely to have close contact with patients who've tested positive for the virus.

But the majority of the 900-plus Mayo Clinic staff members in the Midwest who've been diagnosed with COVID-19 over the last 14 days didn't become infected at work, according to Mayo Clinic spokesperson Kelley Luckstein. In an email to CNN, Luckstein wrote, "Our staff are being infected mostly due to community spread (93% of staff infections), and this impacts our ability to care for patients."

Luckstein added that across the Midwest, where the Mayo Clinic has several medical facilities, approximately 1,500 staff members currently have work restrictions related to COVID-19 exposure or diagnosis.

In a COVID-19 update published on the Mayo Clinic website this week, Amy Williams, MD, the executive dean of the medical center said, "There are three things you need to take care of any patient. Space, supplies and staff. And what we are most worried about is staff."

Dr. Williams also attributed exposure and infection of staff members to community spread. But what exactly is that, and how should it be tackled?

What is community spread?

"Community spread means simply that people in the community become infected with no knowledge of how or where they became infected," Carol A. Winner, MPH, who founded the Give Space personal distancing movement, tells Health. "The source is unknown, as the likelihood of exposure has spread beyond a knowing source, such as your friend or hairstylist calling to tell you that they are sick and you were exposed."

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) definition of community spread echoes Winner's. "Community spread means people have been infected with the virus in an area, including some who are not sure how or where they became infected," states the CDC. "Each health department determines community spread differently based on local conditions."

Community spread means that the infection rate is widespread enough that you could have contracted the virus from any one of a number of persons. "Its breadth is impacted by the 'positivity rate' within a community, which describes the percentage of positive test results of those carried out among groups of community members," Winner explains. "The underlying swell of community spread can be reflected in a high positivity rate—the higher the rate, the more likely people are to be exposed without a known source of infection."

How to stop community spread of COVID-19

How can community spread be addressed? Winner suggests we may have missed the opportunity to contain it in the early days of the pandemic. "COVID-19 spread rapidly through communities in the United States early on in its fervor, as communities were unprepared to successfully isolate cases through contact tracing and testing," she says. Once the virus became politicized and "public health restrictions varied by state and community, it creative a massive multiplier," she adds.

At this point in the pandemic, Winner believes that the best way to address community spread is through broader public health measures, "such as rollbacks to limit person-to-person contact—for instance, bar and gym closing, home schooling, promotion of good health habits, and the sharing of information to keep families informed," she says.

A vaccine will also help to prevent community spread, as people who are vaccinated will either avoid getting infected or, if they do contract the virus, may have a mild or moderate response to the virus. Winner points out that a vaccine is not a panacea, but one part of the long-term solution. "Mask wearing and social distancing alongside widespread vaccination will be necessary to support the success of a long-term effort to constrain this virulent disease," she says.

That's precisely the message the Mayo Clinic wants the public to understand. "Everybody is getting very tired of wearing a mask and hearing about social distance, being told to wash their hands, but we're doing this because we care about our communities," Dr. Williams said in the statement. "We don't want families to lose loved ones. We want everyone to be safe. We will get through this, but we need to be safe, we need to protect each other."

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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