PREPRINT: Investigating the relationship between interventions, contact patterns, and SARS-CoV-2 transmissibility


After a rapid upsurge of COVID-19 cases in Italy during the fall of 2020, the government introduced a three-tiered restriction system aimed at increasing physical distancing. The Ministry of Health, after periodic epidemiological risk assessments, assigned a tier to each of the 21 Italian regions and autonomous provinces (AP). It is still unclear to what extent these different measures altered mixing patterns and how quickly the population adapted their social interactions to continuous changes in restrictions.

Methods and findings

We conducted a survey between July 2020 and March 2021 to monitor changes in social contact patterns among individuals in the metropolitan city of Milan, Italy, which was hardly hit by the second wave of COVID-19 pandemic. The number of contacts during periods characterized by different levels of restrictions was analyzed through negative binomial regression models and age-specific contact matrices were estimated under the different tiers. Relying on the empirically estimated mixing patterns, we quantified relative changes in SARS-CoV-2 transmission potential associated with the different tiers.

As tighter restrictions were implemented during the fall of 2020, a progressive reduction in the mean number of contacts recorded by study participants was observed: from 16.4% under mild restrictions (yellow tier), to 45.6% under strong restrictions (red tier). Higher restrictions levels were also found to increase the relative contribution of contacts occurring within the household. The SARS-CoV-2 reproduction number was estimated to decrease by 18.7% (95%CI: 4.6-30.8), 33.4% (95%CI: 22.7-43.2), and 50.2% (95%CI: 40.9-57.7) under the yellow, orange, and red tiers, respectively.


Our results give an important quantification of the expected contribution of different restriction levels in shaping social contacts and decreasing the transmission potential of SARS-CoV-2. These estimates can find an operational use in anticipating the effect that the implementation of these tiered restriction can have on SARS-CoV-2 reproduction number under an evolving epidemiological situation.

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