A nurse walking through a long hallway.

Most healthcare workers who got COVID-19 were likely infected at work, rather than in the community. That’s according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released last week. It’s the agency’s first evaluation of COVID-19 exposures among U.S. healthcare workers over the first year of the pandemic.

The study examined national surveillance data from nearly 84,000 healthcare professionals collected between March 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021. Researchers found that healthcare workers were most often exposed to SARS-CoV-2 at work (52.0%), followed by exposures at home (30.8%) and in the community (25.6%).

“Previous reports hypothesized that COVID-19 incidence among HCPs was primarily a result of non-occupational exposures, because HCP who lived in communities with higher COVID-19 incidence were more likely to become infected with SARS-CoV-2,” said Rachael M. Billock, PhD, the study’s first author and a member of the CDC COVID-19 Response Team. “Our findings suggest that, particularly during periods of high community incidence of COVID-19, HCP exposures occur both at the workplace and outside of it, with the workplace being a major driver of infections.”

Billock emphasized that the study’s results emphasize the continued need for improved infection prevention and control measures in occupational settings, as well as the need for improved surveillance to identify and reduce occupational exposures to SARS-CoV-2 among healthcare workers. In particular, researchers called for adequate infection-control training, nonpunitive sick leave policies, COVID-19 screening, and availability of effective personal protective equipment.

Some 115,000 healthcare workers died from COVID-19 from January 2020 to May 2021, according to a World Health Organization estimate released in October. 

The study was published in the American Journal of Infection Control.