Limitations in laboratory diagnostic capacity impact population surveillance of COVID-19. It is currently unknown whether participatory surveillance tools for COVID-19 correspond to government-reported case trends longitudinally and if it can be used as an adjunct to laboratory testing. The primary objective of this study was to determine whether self-reported COVID-19-like illness reflected laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 case trends in Ontario Canada.
We retrospectively analyzed longitudinal self-reported symptoms data collected using an online tool–Outbreaks Near Me (ONM)–from April 20th, 2020, to March 7th, 2021 in Ontario, Canada. We measured the correlation between COVID-like illness among respondents and the weekly number of PCR-confirmed COVID-19 cases and provincial test positivity. We explored contemporaneous changes in other respiratory viruses, as well as the demographic characteristics of respondents to provide context for our findings.
Between 3,849–11,185 individuals responded to the symptom survey each week. No correlations were seen been self-reported CLI and either cases or test positivity. Strong positive correlations were seen between CLI and both cases and test positivity before a previously documented rise in rhinovirus/enterovirus in fall 2020. Compared to participatory surveillance respondents, a higher proportion of COVID-19 cases in Ontario consistently came from low-income, racialized and immigrant areas of the province- these groups were less well represented among survey respondents.
Although digital surveillance systems are low-cost tools that have been useful to signal the onset of viral outbreaks, in this longitudinal comparison of self-reported COVID-like illness to Ontario COVID-19 case data we did not find this to be the case. Seasonal respiratory virus transmission and population coverage may explain this discrepancy.