Shrestha NK, et al. Clin Infect Dis 2020.
BACKGROUND: Patients recovering from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) often continue to test positive for the causative virus by PCR even after clinical recovery, thereby complicating return-to-work plans. The purpose of this study was to evaluate transmission potential of COVID-19 by examining viral load with respect to time.
METHODS: Health care personnel (HCP) at Cleveland Clinic diagnosed with COVID-19, who recovered without needing hospitalization, were identified. Threshold cycle (Ct) for positive PCR tests were obtained and viral loads calculated. Association of viral load with days since symptom onset was examined in a multivariable regression model, which was reduced by stepwise backward selection to only keep variables significant at a level of 0.05. Viral loads by day since symptom onset were predicted using the model and transmission potential evaluated by examination of a viral load-time curve.
RESULTS: Over six weeks, 230 HCP had 528 tests performed. Viral loads declined by orders of magnitude within a few days of symptom onset. The only variable significantly associated with viral load was time since onset of symptoms. Of the area under the curve (AUC) spanning symptom onset to 30 days, 96.9% lay within the first 7 days, and 99.7% within 10 days. Findings were very similar when validated using split-sample and 10-fold cross-validation.
CONCLUSIONS: Among patients with non-severe COVID-19, viral loads in upper respiratory specimens peak by two or three days from symptom onset and decrease rapidly thereafter. The vast majority of the viral load-time AUC lies within 10 days of symptom onset.