The challenge of SARS-CoV-2 environmental monitoring in schools using floors and portable HEPA filtration units: Fresh or relic RNA?

Rogelio Zuniga-Montanez, David A. Coil, Jonathan A Eisen, Randi Pechacek, Roque G. Guerrero, Minji Kim, Karen Shapiro, Heather N. Bischel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Testing surfaces in school classrooms for the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can provide public-health information that complements clinical testing. We monitored the presence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in five schools (96 classrooms) in Davis, California (USA) by collecting weekly surface-swab samples from classroom floors and/or portable high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) units (n = 2,341 swabs). Twenty-two surfaces tested positive, with qPCR cycle threshold (Ct) values ranging from 36.07–38.01. Intermittent repeated positives in a single room were observed for both floor and HEPA filter samples for up to 52 days, even following regular cleaning and HEPA filter replacement after a positive result. We compared the two environmental sampling strategies by testing one floor and two HEPA filter samples in 57 classrooms at Schools D and E. HEPA filter sampling yielded 3.02% and 0.41% positivity rates per filter sample collected for Schools D and E, respectively, while floor sampling yielded 0.48% and 0% positivity rates. Our results indicate that HEPA filter swabs are more sensitive than floor swabs at detecting SARS-CoV-2 RNA in interior spaces. During the study, all schools were offered weekly free COVID-19 clinical testing through Healthy Davis Together (HDT). HDT also offered on-site clinical testing in Schools D and E, and upticks in testing participation were observed following a confirmed positive environmental sample. However, no confirmed COVID-19 cases were identified among students associated with classrooms yielding positive environmental samples. The positive samples detected in this study appeared to contain relic viral RNA from individuals infected before the monitoring program started and/or RNA transported into classrooms via fomites. High-Ct positive results from environmental swabs detected in the absence of known active infections supports this conclusion. Additional research is needed to differentiate between fresh and relic SARS-CoV-2 RNA in environmental samples and to determine what types of results should trigger interventions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0267212
JournalPloS one
Issue number4 April
StatePublished - Apr 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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