Infectious SARS-CoV-2 in Exhaled Aerosols and Efficacy of Masks During Early Mild Infection

We enrolled 49 seronegative cases (mean days post onset 3.8 ±2.1), May 2020 through April 2021. We detected SARS-CoV-2 RNA in 45% of fine (≤5 µm), 31% of coarse (>5 µm) aerosols, and 65% of fomite samples overall and in all samples from four alpha-variant cases. Masks reduced viral RNA by 48% (95% confidence interval [CI], 3 to 72%) in fine and by 77% (95% CI, 51 to 89%) in coarse aerosols; cloth and surgical masks were not significantly different. The alpha variant was associated with a 43-fold (95% CI, 6.6 to 280-fold) increase in fine aerosol viral RNA, compared with earlier viruses, that remained a significant 18-fold (95% CI, 3.4 to 92-fold) increase adjusting for viral RNA in saliva, swabs, and other potential confounders. Two fine aerosol samples, collected while participants wore masks, were culture-positive.