Aerosol SARS-CoV-2 in hospitals and long-term care homes during the COVID-19 pandemic

Background Few studies have quantified aerosol concentrations of SARS-CoV-2 in hospitals and long-term care homes, and fewer still have examined samples for viability. This information is needed to clarify transmission risks beyond close contact.

Methods We deployed particulate air samplers in rooms with COVID-19 positive patients in hospital ward and ICU rooms, rooms in long-term care homes experiencing outbreaks, and a correctional facility experiencing an outbreak. Samplers were placed between 2 and 3 meters from the patient. Aerosol (small liquid particles suspended in air) samples were collected onto gelatin filters by Ultrasonic Personal Air Samplers (UPAS) fitted with <2.5µm (micrometer) and <10 µm size-selective inlets operated for 16 hours (total 1.92m3), and with a Coriolis Biosampler over 10 minutes (total 1.5m3). Samples were assayed for viable SARS-CoV-2 virus and for the viral genome by multiplex PCR using the E and N protein target sequences. We validated the sampling methods by inoculating gelatin filters with viable vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV), and with three concentrations of viable SARS-CoV-2, operating personal samplers for 16hrs, and quantifying viable virus recovery by TCID50 assay.

Results In total, 138 samples were collected from 99 rooms. RNA samples were positive in 9.1% (6/66) of samples obtained with the UPAS 2.5µm samplers, 13.5% (7/52) with the UPAS 10µm samplers, and 10.0% (2/20) samples obtained with the Coriolis samplers. Culturable virus was not recovered in any samples. Viral RNA was detected in 10.9% of the rooms sampled. There was no significant difference in viral RNA recovery between the different room locations or samplers. Method development experiments indicated minimal loss of SARS-CoV-2 viability via the personal air sampler operation.

Key Findings Although a subset of aerosol samples exhibited detectable SARS-CoV-2 RNA at low titres, the presence of viable SARS-CoV-2 virus in aerosols appears to be infrequent at >2m distance.

Lead Researchers

Link to Publication


  1. Tom Kovesi

    Investigator, CHEO Research Institute

    View Profile Email