Guidelines for Triage of COVID-19 Patients Presenting With Multisystemic Symptoms

Qual Manag Health Care. 2023 Jan-Mar;32(Suppl 1):S3-S10. doi: 10.1097/QMH.0000000000000398.


Background and objectives: This article describes how multisystemic symptoms, both respiratory and nonrespiratory, can be used to differentiate coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19) from other diseases at the point of patient triage in the community. The article also shows how combinations of symptoms could be used to predict the probability of a patient having COVID-19.

Methods: We first used a scoping literature review to identify symptoms of COVID-19 reported during the first year of the global pandemic. We then surveyed individuals with reported symptoms and recent reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test results to assess the accuracy of diagnosing COVID-19 from reported symptoms. The scoping literature review, which included 81 scientific articles published by February 2021, identified 7 respiratory, 9 neurological, 4 gastrointestinal, 4 inflammatory, and 5 general symptoms associated with COVID-19 diagnosis. The likelihood ratio associated with each symptom was estimated from sensitivity and specificity of symptoms reported in the literature. A total of 483 individuals were then surveyed to validate the accuracy of predicting COVID-19 diagnosis based on patient symptoms using the likelihood ratios calculated from the literature review. Survey results were weighted to reflect age, gender, and race of the US population. The accuracy of predicting COVID-19 diagnosis from patient-reported symptoms was assessed using area under the receiver operating curve (AROC).

Results: In the community, cough, sore throat, runny nose, dyspnea, and hypoxia, by themselves, were not good predictors of COVID-19 diagnosis. A combination of cough and fever was also a poor predictor of COVID-19 diagnosis (AROC = 0.56). The accuracy of diagnosing COVID-19 based on symptoms was highest when individuals presented with symptoms from different body systems (AROC of 0.74-0.81); the lowest accuracy was when individuals presented with only respiratory symptoms (AROC = 0.48).

Conclusions: There are no simple rules that clinicians can use to diagnose COVID-19 in the community when diagnostic tests are unavailable or untimely. However, triage of patients to appropriate care and treatment can be improved by reviewing the combinations of certain types of symptoms across body systems.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19 Testing
  • COVID-19* / diagnosis
  • Cough / diagnosis
  • Cough / etiology
  • Humans
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Triage