Near real-time surveillance of the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic with incomplete data

medRxiv. 2021 Jan 26;2021.01.25.20230094. doi: 10.1101/2021.01.25.20230094. Preprint


Designing public health responses to outbreaks requires close monitoring of population-level health indicators in real-time. Thus, an accurate estimation of the epidemic curve is critical. We propose an approach to reconstruct epidemic curves in near real time. We apply this approach to characterize the early SARS-CoV-2 outbreak in two Spanish regions between March and April 2020. We address two data collection problems that affected the reliability of the available real-time epidemiological data, namely, the frequent missing information documenting when a patient first experienced symptoms, and the frequent retrospective revision of historical information (including right censoring). This is done by using a novel back-calculating procedure based on imputing patients' dates of symptom onset from reported cases, according to a dynamically-estimated "backward" reporting delay conditional distribution, and adjusting for right censoring using an existing package, NobBS , to estimate in real time (nowcast) cases by date of symptom onset. This process allows us to obtain an approximation of the time-varying reproduction number ( R t ) in real-time. At each step, we evaluate how different assumptions affect the recovered epidemiological events and compare the proposed approach to the alternative procedure of merely using curves of case counts, by report day, to characterize the time-evolution of the outbreak. Finally, we assess how these real-time estimates compare with subsequently documented epidemiological information that is considered more reliable and complete that became available later in time. Our approach may help improve accuracy, quantify uncertainty, and evaluate frequently unstated assumptions when recovering the epidemic curves from limited data obtained from public health surveillance systems in other locations.

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  • Preprint