Design of effective outpatient sentinel surveillance for COVID-19 decision-making: a modeling study

Kok Ben Toh*, Manuela Runge, Reese Ak Richardson, Thomas J. Hladish, Jaline Gerardin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Decision-makers impose COVID-19 mitigations based on public health indicators such as reported cases, which are sensitive to fluctuations in supply and demand for diagnostic testing, and hospital admissions, which lag infections by up to two weeks. Imposing mitigations too early has unnecessary economic costs while imposing too late leads to uncontrolled epidemics with unnecessary cases and deaths. Sentinel surveillance of recently-symptomatic individuals in outpatient testing sites may overcome biases and lags in conventional indicators, but the minimal outpatient sentinel surveillance system needed for reliable trend estimation remains unknown. Methods: We used a stochastic, compartmental transmission model to evaluate the performance of various surveillance indicators at reliably triggering an alarm in response to, but not before, a step increase in transmission of SARS-CoV-2. The surveillance indicators included hospital admissions, hospital occupancy, and sentinel cases with varying levels of sampling effort capturing 5, 10, 20, 50, or 100% of incident mild cases. We tested 3 levels of transmission increase, 3 population sizes, and conditions of either simultaneous transmission increase or lagged increase in the older population. We compared the indicators’ performance at triggering alarm soon after, but not prior, to the transmission increase. Results: Compared to surveillance based on hospital admissions, outpatient sentinel surveillance that captured at least 20% of incident mild cases could trigger an alarm 2 to 5 days earlier for a mild increase in transmission and 6 days earlier for a moderate or strong increase. Sentinel surveillance triggered fewer false alarms and averted more deaths per day spent in mitigation. When transmission increase in older populations lagged the increase in younger populations by 14 days, sentinel surveillance extended its lead time over hospital admissions by an additional 2 days. Conclusions: Sentinel surveillance of mild symptomatic cases can provide more timely and reliable information on changes in transmission to inform decision-makers in an epidemic like COVID-19.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number287
JournalBMC Infectious Diseases
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2023


  • COVID-19
  • Modeling
  • Public health indicators
  • Surveillance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Infectious Diseases


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