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High variability in transmission of SARS-CoV-2 within households and implications for control

Damon J A Toth, Alexander B Beams, Lindsay T Keegan, Yue Zhang, Tom Greene, Brian Orleans, Nathan Seegert, W. Looney, Stephen C Alder and Matthew H Samore

PLOS ONE, 2021, vol. 16, issue 11, 1-21

Abstract: Background: Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) poses a high risk of transmission in close-contact indoor settings, which may include households. Prior studies have found a wide range of household secondary attack rates and may contain biases due to simplifying assumptions about transmission variability and test accuracy. Methods: We compiled serological SARS-CoV-2 antibody test data and prior SARS-CoV-2 test reporting from members of 9,224 Utah households. We paired these data with a probabilistic model of household importation and transmission. We calculated a maximum likelihood estimate of the importation probability, mean and variability of household transmission probability, and sensitivity and specificity of test data. Given our household transmission estimates, we estimated the threshold of non-household transmission required for epidemic growth in the population. Results: We estimated that individuals in our study households had a 0.41% (95% CI 0.32%– 0.51%) chance of acquiring SARS-CoV-2 infection outside their household. Our household secondary attack rate estimate was 36% (27%– 48%), substantially higher than the crude estimate of 16% unadjusted for imperfect serological test specificity and other factors. We found evidence for high variability in individual transmissibility, with higher probability of no transmissions or many transmissions compared to standard models. With household transmission at our estimates, the average number of non-household transmissions per case must be kept below 0.41 (0.33–0.52) to avoid continued growth of the pandemic in Utah. Conclusions: Our findings suggest that crude estimates of household secondary attack rate based on serology data without accounting for false positive tests may underestimate the true average transmissibility, even when test specificity is high. Our finding of potential high variability (overdispersion) in transmissibility of infected individuals is consistent with characterizing SARS-CoV-2 transmission being largely driven by superspreading from a minority of infected individuals. Mitigation efforts targeting large households and other locations where many people congregate indoors might curb continued spread of the virus.

Date: 2021
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DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0259097

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