A sick nurse sneezes into her arm
Credit: Drazen Zigic/Getty Images Plus

A new federal study suggests that healthcare workers were more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 at their job early on during the pandemic — contradicting previous research that suggested workers that lived in more populated areas with higher COVID rates were more likely to be infected. 

The findings were published Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the American Journal of Infection Control. COVID-19 surveillance data of nearly 84,000 workers from March 2020 to March 2021 found that 52% reported known exposures to COVID in their workplace, while just 30.8% reported household exposure and 25.6% report community exposure.

“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,” she added. 

Two-thirds of workers who reported exposure to COVID-19 on the job were attributed to patients or fellow colleagues who had the disease. The “finding underscores the importance of improved infection prevention and control measures to address transmission through all healthcare-associated routes, including co-worker to co-worker, during future outbreaks,” researchers said. 

Additionally, data showed that the largest reductions in workplace exposures were seen during June 2020 following new infection control guidance and again in December 2020 with the introduction of the vaccine. 

Researchers said the findings underscore the importance of infection control and prevention measures to minimize workplace hazards and reduce associated exposures on the job among healthcare personnel (HCP). 

“Widespread HCP COVID-19 vaccination is essential to minimize workplace transmissions and safeguard against HCP worker shortages,” investigators concluded. “In addition, adequate training, non-punitive sick leave, screening testing, and other IPC measures should be provided to protect at-risk workers.”