Persistent detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in patients and healthcare workers with COVID-19

J Clin Virol. 2020 Aug;129:104477. doi: 10.1016/j.jcv.2020.104477. Epub 2020 May 30.


Background: Current guidelines for returning health care workers (HCW) to service after a positive SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR test and ceasing of transmission precautions for patients is based on two general strategies. A test-based strategy that requires negative respiratory RT-PCR tests obtained after the resolution of symptoms. Alternatively, due to the limited availability of testing, many sites employ a symptom-based strategy that recommends excluding HCW from the workforce and keeping patients on contact precautions until a fixed period of time has elapsed from symptom recovery. The underlying assumption of the symptom-based strategy is that waiting for a fixed period of time is a surrogate for negative RT-PCR testing, which itself is a surrogate for the absence of shedding infectious virus.

Objectives: To better understand the appropriate length of symptom based return to work and contact precaution strategies.

Study design: We performed an observational analysis of 150 patients and HCW that transitioned from RT-PCR SARS-CoV-2 positive to negative over the course of 2 months at a US academic medical center.

Results: We found that the average time to transition from RT-PCR positive to negative was 24 days after symptom onset and 10 % remained positive even 33 days after symptom onset. No difference was seen in HCW and patients.

Conclusions: These findings suggest until definitive evidence of the length of infective viral shedding is obtained that the fixed length of time before returning to work or ceasing contract precautions be revised to over one-month.

Keywords: COVID-19; Healthcare workers; RT-PCR; SARS−COV-2.

Publication types

  • Observational Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Betacoronavirus / genetics
  • Betacoronavirus / isolation & purification*
  • COVID-19
  • Coronavirus Infections / virology*
  • Female
  • Health Personnel*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pandemics
  • Pneumonia, Viral / virology*
  • RNA, Viral / analysis*
  • RNA, Viral / genetics
  • Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Time Factors
  • Virus Shedding*


  • RNA, Viral