Study documents widespread contamination of the environment near patients with COVID-19

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LINCOLN, Neb. - A study by UNMC/Nebraska Medicine/NSRI researchers recently posted on the open pre-publication site BioRxiv, provides new evidence of SARS-CoV-2 environmental contamination in COVID-19 patient care areas. SARS-CoV-2 is the virus which causes COVID-19 disease, which is now a worldwide pandemic.

This rapid response research represents the mission of the Global Center for Health Security to advance efforts to respond SARS-CoV-2. The study found high levels of the virus contamination by PCR on commonly used surfaces and in the air of rooms of COVID-19 patients. Air samplers from hallways outside of rooms where staff were moving in and out of doors were also positive. The study suggests that COVID-19 patients, even those who are only mildly ill, may create aerosols of virus and contaminate surfaces that may pose a risk for transmission.

“Our findings show how important it is for health care workers providing direct care to these patients to take enhanced transmission precautions,” said John Lowe, PhD, vice chancellor for Inter-professional Health Security Training and Education. “That means wearing the proper personal protective equipment, using negative air pressure rooms for these patients whenever possible and being mindful about the method of entering and exiting these rooms.”

During the initial isolation of 13 people confirmed positive with COVID-19 infection, air and surface samples were collected in eleven isolation rooms to examine environmental contamination. Many commonly used items, toilet facilities, and air samples had evidence of the virus, indicating that SARS-CoV-2 is widely disseminated in the environment. These findings indicate that disease might be spread through both direct (droplet and person-to-person) as well as indirect contact (contaminated objects and airborne transmission) and suggests airborne isolation precautions could be appropriate.

“Our team was already taking airborne precautions with the initial patients we cared for,” said James Lawler, MD, infectious diseases expert and director of the Global Center for Health Security at UNMC. “This report reinforces our suspicions. It’s why we have maintained COVID patients in rooms equipped with negative air flow and will continue to make efforts to do so – even with an increase in the number of patients. Our health care workers providing care will be equipped with the appropriate level of personal protective equipment. Obviously, more research is required to be able to characterize environmental risk.”

“Studies like these are needed to understand proper precautions for healthcare workers, first responders and others who care for the ill and are needed to combat this pandemic,” said Joshua Santarpia, PhD, assoc. professor of pathology and microbiology at UNMC and research director for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction at the National Strategic Research Institute. “This ongoing work will continue to improve our understanding of SARS-CoV-2 transmission and help identify ways to improve safety in the care of patients with this disease.”

The investigative team stresses that careful environmental cleaning and disinfection of surfaces, including those in the bathroom, is important. The CDC and the WHO recommend that appropriate personal protective equipment, including respiratory protection, be utilized in the care of persons known or suspected to be infected with SARS-CoV-2.

A link to the full document is available here.