Assessment of Air Contamination by SARS-CoV-2 in Hospital Settings

JAMA Netw Open. 2020 Dec 1;3(12):e2033232. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.33232.


Importance: Controversy remains regarding the transmission routes of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).

Objective: To review current evidence on air contamination with SARS-CoV-2 in hospital settings and the factors associated with contamination, including viral load and particle size.

Evidence review: The MEDLINE, Embase, and Web of Science databases were systematically queried for original English-language articles detailing SARS-CoV-2 air contamination in hospital settings between January 1 and October 27, 2020. This study was conducted in accordance with the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses extension for Scoping Reviews (PRISMA-ScR) guidelines. The positivity rate of SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA and culture were described and compared according to the setting, clinical context, air ventilation system, and distance from patients. The SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentrations in copies per meter cubed of air were pooled, and their distribution was described by hospital areas. Particle sizes and SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentrations in copies or median tissue culture infectious dose (TCID50) per meter cubed were analyzed after categorization as less than 1 μm, from 1 to 4 μm, and greater than 4 μm.

Findings: Among 2284 records identified, 24 cross-sectional observational studies were included in the review. Overall, 82 of 471 air samples (17.4%) from close patient environments were positive for SARS-CoV-2 RNA, with a significantly higher positivity rate in intensive care unit settings (intensive care unit, 27 of 107 [25.2%] vs non-intensive care unit, 39 of 364 [10.7%]; P < .001). There was no difference according to the distance from patients (≤1 m, 3 of 118 [2.5%] vs >1-5 m, 13 of 236 [5.5%]; P = .22). The positivity rate was 5 of 21 air samples (23.8%) in toilets, 20 of 242 (8.3%) in clinical areas, 15 of 122 (12.3%) in staff areas, and 14 of 42 (33.3%) in public areas. A total of 81 viral cultures were performed across 5 studies, and 7 (8.6%) from 2 studies were positive, all from close patient environments. The median (interquartile range) SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentrations varied from 1.0 × 103 copies/m3 (0.4 × 103 to 3.1 × 103 copies/m3) in clinical areas to 9.7 × 103 copies/m3 (5.1 × 103 to 14.3 × 103 copies/m3) in the air of toilets or bathrooms. Protective equipment removal and patient rooms had high concentrations per titer of SARS-CoV-2 (varying from 0.9 × 103 to 40 × 103 copies/m3 and 3.8 × 103 to 7.2 × 103 TCID50/m3), with aerosol size distributions that showed peaks in the region of particle size less than 1 μm; staff offices had peaks in the region of particle size greater than 4 μm.

Conclusions and relevance: In this systematic review, the air close to and distant from patients with coronavirus disease 2019 was frequently contaminated with SARS-CoV-2 RNA; however, few of these samples contained viable viruses. High viral loads found in toilets and bathrooms, staff areas, and public hallways suggest that these areas should be carefully considered.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Air Microbiology*
  • COVID-19 / transmission*
  • Hospitals*
  • Humans
  • Microbial Viability
  • Particle Size
  • RNA, Viral / analysis*
  • SARS-CoV-2 / genetics*
  • SARS-CoV-2 / isolation & purification


  • RNA, Viral