Nosocomial Outbreak of Coronavirus Disease 2019 by Possible Airborne Transmission Leading to a Superspreading Event

Clin Infect Dis. 2021 Sep 15;73(6):e1356-e1364. doi: 10.1093/cid/ciab313.


Background: Nosocomial outbreaks with superspreading of coronavirus disease 2019 due to a possible airborne transmission have not been reported.

Methods: Epidemiological analysis, environmental samplings, and whole-genome sequencing (WGS) were performed for a hospital outbreak.

Results: A superspreading event that involved 12 patients and 9 healthcare workers (HCWs) occurred within 9 days in 3 of 6 cubicles at an old-fashioned general ward with no air exhaust built within the cubicles. The environmental contamination by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) RNA was significantly higher in air grilles (>2 m from patients' heads and not within reach) than on high-touch clinical surfaces (36.4%, 8 of 22 vs 3.4%, 1 of 29, P = .003). Six (66.7%) of 9 contaminated air exhaust grilles were located outside patient cubicles. The clinical attack rate of patients was significantly higher than of HCWs (15.4%, 12 of 78 exposed patients vs 4.6%, 9 of 195 exposed HCWs, P = .005). Moreover, the clinical attack rate of ward-based HCWs was significantly higher than of nonward-based HCWs (8.1%, 7 of 68 vs 1.8%, 2 of 109, P = .045). The episodes (mean ± standard deviation) of patient-care duty assignment in the cubicles was significantly higher among infected ward-based HCWs than among noninfected ward-based HCWs (6.0 ± 2.4 vs 3.0 ± 2.9, P = .012) during the outbreak period. The outbreak strains belong to SARS-CoV-2 lineage B.1.36.27 (GISAID clade GH) with the unique S-T470N mutation on WGS.

Conclusions: This nosocomial point source superspreading event due to possible airborne transmission demonstrates the need for stringent SARS-CoV-2 screening at admission to healthcare facilities and better architectural design of ventilation systems to prevent such outbreaks. Portable high-efficiency particulate filters were installed in each cubicle to improve ventilation before resumption of clinical service.

Keywords: COVID-19; airborne transmission; hospital outbreak; ventilation system; whole genome sequencing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19*
  • Cross Infection* / epidemiology
  • Disease Outbreaks
  • Health Personnel
  • Hospitals
  • Humans
  • SARS-CoV-2