Contact Tracing Assessment of COVID-19 Transmission Dynamics in Taiwan and Risk at Different Exposure Periods Before and After Symptom Onset

JAMA Intern Med. 2020 May 1;180(9):1156-1163. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.2020. Online ahead of print.


Importance: The dynamics of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) transmissibility are yet to be fully understood. Better understanding of the transmission dynamics is important for the development and evaluation of effective control policies.

Objective: To delineate the transmission dynamics of COVID-19 and evaluate the transmission risk at different exposure window periods before and after symptom onset.

Design, setting, and participants: This prospective case-ascertained study in Taiwan included laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 and their contacts. The study period was from January 15 to March 18, 2020. All close contacts were quarantined at home for 14 days after their last exposure to the index case. During the quarantine period, any relevant symptoms (fever, cough, or other respiratory symptoms) of contacts triggered a COVID-19 test. The final follow-up date was April 2, 2020.

Main outcomes and measures: Secondary clinical attack rate (considering symptomatic cases only) for different exposure time windows of the index cases and for different exposure settings (such as household, family, and health care).

Results: We enrolled 100 confirmed patients, with a median age of 44 years (range, 11-88 years), including 56 men and 44 women. Among their 2761 close contacts, there were 22 paired index-secondary cases. The overall secondary clinical attack rate was 0.7% (95% CI, 0.4%-1.0%). The attack rate was higher among the 1818 contacts whose exposure to index cases started within 5 days of symptom onset (1.0% [95% CI, 0.6%-1.6%]) compared with those who were exposed later (0 cases from 852 contacts; 95% CI, 0%-0.4%). The 299 contacts with exclusive presymptomatic exposures were also at risk (attack rate, 0.7% [95% CI, 0.2%-2.4%]). The attack rate was higher among household (4.6% [95% CI, 2.3%-9.3%]) and nonhousehold (5.3% [95% CI, 2.1%-12.8%]) family contacts than that in health care or other settings. The attack rates were higher among those aged 40 to 59 years (1.1% [95% CI, 0.6%-2.1%]) and those aged 60 years and older (0.9% [95% CI, 0.3%-2.6%]).

Conclusions and relevance: In this study, high transmissibility of COVID-19 before and immediately after symptom onset suggests that finding and isolating symptomatic patients alone may not suffice to contain the epidemic, and more generalized measures may be required, such as social distancing.