Importance: Individuals with asymptomatic or mild coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) have been reported to frequently transmit the disease even without direct contact. The severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 has been found at very high concentrations in swab and sputum samples from such individuals.
Objective: To estimate the virus levels released from individuals with asymptomatic to moderate COVID-19 into different aerosol sizes by normal breathing and coughing, and to determine what exposure could result from this in a room shared with such individuals.
Design, setting, and participants: This mathematical modeling study combined the size-distribution of exhaled breath microdroplets for coughing and normal breathing with viral swab and sputum concentrations as approximation for lung lining liquid to obtain an estimate of emitted virus levels. Viral data were obtained from studies published as of May 20, 2020. The resulting emission data fed a single-compartment model of airborne concentrations in a room of 50 m3, the size of a small office or medical examination room.
Main outcomes and measures: Modeling was used to estimate the viral load emitted by individuals breathing normally or coughing, and the concentrations expected in the simulated room at different ventilation rates.
Results: The mean estimated viral load in microdroplets emitted by simulated individuals while breathing regularly was 0.0000049 copies/cm3, with a range of 0.0000000049 to 0.637 copies/cm3. The corresponding estimates for simulated coughing individuals were a mean of 0.277 copies/cm3 per cough, with a range of 0.000277 to 36 030 copies/cm3 per cough. The estimated concentrations in a room with an individual who was coughing frequently were very high, with a maximum of 7.44 million copies/m3 from an individual who was a high emitter. However, regular breathing from an individual who was a high emitter was modeled to result in lower room concentrations of up to 1248 copies/m3.
Conclusions and relevance: In this modeling study, breathing and coughing were estimated to release large numbers of viruses, ranging from thousands to millions of virus copies per cubic meter in a room with an individual with COVID-19 with a high viral load, depending on ventilation and microdroplet formation process. The estimated infectious risk posed by a person with typical viral load who breathes normally was low. The results suggest that only few people with very high viral load pose an infection risk in poorly ventilated closed environments. These findings suggest that strict respiratory protection may be needed when there is a chance to be in the same small room with an individual, whether symptomatic or not, especially for a prolonged period.