COVID-19 symptoms at time of testing and association with positivity among outpatients tested for SARS-CoV-2

David A. Wohl*, Amir H. Barzin, Sonia Napravnik, Thibaut Davy-Mendez, Jason R. Smedberg, Cecilia M. Thompson, Laura Ruegsegger, Matt Gilleskie, David J. Weber, Herbert C. Whinna, Melissa B. Miller

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Introduction Symptoms associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection remain incompletely understood, especially among ambulatory, non-hospitalized individuals. With host factors, symptoms predictive of SARS-CoV-2 could be used to guide testing and intervention strategies. Methods Between March 16 and September 3, 2020, we examined the characteristics and symptoms reported by individuals presenting to a large outpatient testing program in the Southeastern US for nasopharyngeal SARS-CoV-2 RNA RT-PCR testing. Using self-reported symptoms, demographic characteristics, and exposure and travel histories, we identified the variables associated with testing positive using modified Poisson regression. Results Among 20,177 tested individuals, the proportion positive was 9.4% (95% CI, 9.0–9.8) and was higher for men, younger individuals, and racial/ethnic minorities (all P<0.05); the positivity proportion was higher for Hispanics (26.9%; 95% CI. 24.9–29.0) compared to Blacks (8.6%; 95% CI, 7.6–9.7) or Whites (5.8%; 95% CI, 5.4–6.3). Individuals reporting contact with a COVID-19 case had the highest positivity proportion (22.8%; 95% CI, 21.5–24.1). Among the subset of 8,522 symptomatic adults who presented for testing after May 1, when complete symptom assessments were performed, SARS-CoV-2 RNA PCR was detected in 1,116 (13.1%). Of the reported symptoms, loss of taste or smell was most strongly associated with SARS-CoV-2 RNA detection with an adjusted risk ratio of 3.88 (95% CI, 3.46–4.35). The presence of chills, fever, cough, aches, headache, fatigue and nasal congestion also significantly increased the risk of detecting SARS-CoV-2 RNA, while diarrhea or nausea/vomiting, although not uncommon, were significantly more common in those with a negative test result. Symptom combinations were frequent with 67.9% experiencing ≥4 symptoms, including 19.8% with ≥8 symptoms; report of greater than three symptoms increased the risk of SARSCoV-2 RNA detection. Conclusions In a large outpatient population in the Southeastern US, several symptoms, most notably loss of taste or smell, and greater symptom burden were associated with detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA. Persons of color and those with who were a contact of a COVID-19 case were also more likely to test positive. These findings suggest that, given limited SARSCoV-2 testing capacity, symptom presentation and host characteristics can be used to guide testing and intervention prioritization.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0260879
JournalPloS one
Issue number12 December
StatePublished - Dec 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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