The Synergistic Effect of Time of Exposure, Distance and No Use of Personal Protective Equipment in the Determination of SARS-CoV-2 Infection: Results of a Contact Tracing Follow-Up Study in Healthcare Workers

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Sep 8;18(18):9456. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18189456.


The aim of this study is to assess the effect of contact time, contact distance and the use of personal protective equipment on the determination of SARS-CoV-2 infection in healthcare workers (HCWs). This study consists of an analysis of data gathered for safety reasons at the Sapienza Teaching Hospital Policlinico Umberto I in Rome through the surveillance system that was put into place after the worsening of the COVID-19 pandemic. The studied subjects consist of HCWs who were put under health surveillance, i.e., all employees who were in contact with subjects who were confirmed to have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. The HCWs under surveillance were monitored for a period encompassing ten days after the date of contact, during which they undertook nasopharyngeal swab tests analysed through RT-PCR (RealStar® SARS-CoV-2 Altona Diagnostic-Germany). Descriptive and univariate analyses have been undertaken, considering the following as risk factors: (a) no personal protective equipment use (PPE); (b) Distance < 1 m between the positive and contact persons; (c) contact time > 15'. Finally, a Cox regression and an analysis of the level of synergism between factors, as specified by Rothman, were carried out. We analysed data from 1273 HCWs. Of these HCWs, 799 (62.8%) were females, with a sample average age of 47.8 years. Thirty-nine (3.1%) tested positive during surveillance. The overall incidence rate was 0.4 per 100 person-days. Time elapsed from the last exposure and a positive RT-PCR result ranged from 2 to 17 days (mean = 7, median = 6 days). In the univariate analysis, a distance <1 m and a contact time > 15' proved to be risk factors for the SARS-CoV-2 infection, with a hazard ratio (HR) of 2.62 (95% CI: 1.11-6.19) and 3.59 (95% IC: 1.57-8.21), respectively. The synergism analysis found the highest synergism between the "no PPE use" x "Contact time". The synergy index S remains strongly positive also in the analysis of the factors "no PPE use" x "Distance" and "Time of contact" x "Distance". This study confirms the absolute need to implement safety protocols during the pandemic and to use the correct PPE within health facilities in order to prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection. The analysis shows that among the factors considered (contact time and distance, no use of PPE), there is a strong synergistic effect.

Keywords: COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; contact tracing; distance; personal protective equipment; safety; synergism; time of exposure.

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19*
  • Contact Tracing
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Health Personnel
  • Humans
  • Infectious Disease Transmission, Patient-to-Professional / prevention & control
  • Middle Aged
  • Pandemics
  • Personal Protective Equipment*
  • SARS-CoV-2