Background: Defining dispersal of influenza virus via aerosol is essential for the development of prevention measures.
Methods: During the 2010-2011 influenza season, subjects with influenza-like illness were enrolled in an emergency department and throughout a tertiary care hospital, nasopharyngeal swab specimens were obtained, and symptom severity, treatment, and medical history were recorded. Quantitative impaction air samples were taken not ≤0.305 m (1 foot), 0.914 m (3 feet), and 1.829 m (6 feet) from the patient's head during routine care. Influenza virus was detected by rapid test and polymerase chain reaction.
Results: Sixty-one of 94 subjects (65%) tested positive for influenza virus. Twenty-six patients (43%) released influenza virus into room air, with 5 (19%) emitting up to 32 times more virus than others. Emitters surpassed the airborne 50% human infectious dose of influenza virus at all sample locations. Healthcare professionals (HCPs) were exposed to mainly small influenza virus particles (diameter, <4.7 µm), with concentrations decreasing with increasing distance from the patient's head (P < .05). Influenza virus release was associated with high viral loads in nasopharyngeal samples (shedding), coughing, and sneezing (P < .05). Patients who reported severe illness and major interference with daily life also emitted more influenza virus (P < .05).
Conclusions: HCPs within 1.829 m of patients with influenza could be exposed to infectious doses of influenza virus, primarily in small-particle aerosols. This finding questions the current paradigm of localized droplet transmission during non-aerosol-generating procedures.