Risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission upon return to work in RNA-positive healthcare workers

J Hosp Infect. 2022 Jun:124:72-78. doi: 10.1016/j.jhin.2022.02.024. Epub 2022 Mar 12.


Background: Healthcare workers (HCWs) are at risk for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), and for spreading severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) amongst colleagues and patients.

Aim: To study the presence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA and possible onward transmission by HCWs upon return to work after COVID-19, and association with disease severity and development of antibodies over time.

Methods: Unvaccinated HCWs with positive SARS-CoV-2 reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) were recruited prospectively. Data on symptoms were collected via telephone questionnaires on days 2, 7, 14 and 21 after a positive test. Upon return to work, repeat SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR was performed and serum was collected. Repeat serum samples were collected at weeks 4, 8, 12 and 16 to determine antibody dynamics over time. Phylogenetic analysis was conducted to investigate possible transmission events originating from HCWs with a positive repeat RT-PCR.

Findings: Sixty-one (84.7%) participants with mild/moderate COVID-19 had a repeat SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR performed upon return to work (median 13 days after symptom onset), of which 30 (49.1%) were positive with a median cycle threshold (Ct) value of 29.2 (IQR 26.9-29.9). All HCWs developed antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. No significant differences in symptomatology and presence of antibodies were found between repeat RT-PCR-positive and -negative HCWs. Eleven direct colleagues of six participants with a repeat RT-PCR Ct value <30 tested positive after the HCW returned to work. Phylogenetic and epidemiologic analysis did not indicate onward transmission through HCWs who were SARS-CoV-2 RNA positive upon return to work.

Conclusions: HCWs regularly return to work with substantial SARS-CoV-2 RNA loads. However, this study found no evidence for subsequent in-hospital transmission.

Keywords: COVID-19; Healthcare worker; Infectious disease transmission; SARS-CoV-2.

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19*
  • Health Personnel
  • Humans
  • Phylogeny
  • RNA, Viral
  • Return to Work
  • SARS-CoV-2*


  • RNA, Viral