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During the COVID-19 pandemic, large-scale diagnostic testing and contact tracing have proven insufficient to promptly monitor the spread of infections.


To develop and retrospectively evaluate a system identifying aberrations in the use of selected healthcare services to timely detect COVID-19 outbreaks in small areas.


Data were retrieved from the healthcare utilisation (HCU) databases of the Lombardy Region, Italy. We identified eight services suggesting a respiratory infection (syndromic proxies). Count time series reporting the weekly occurrence of each proxy from 2015 to 2020 were generated considering small administrative areas (i.e. census units of Cremona and Mantua provinces). The ability to uncover aberrations during 2020 was tested for two algorithms: the improved Farrington algorithm and the generalised likelihood ratio-based procedure for negative binomial counts. To evaluate these algorithms’ performance in detecting outbreaks earlier than the standard surveillance, confirmed outbreaks, defined according to the weekly number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, were used as reference. Performances were assessed separately for the first and second semester of the year. Proxies positively impacting performance were identified.


We estimated that 70% of outbreaks could be detected early using the proposed approach, with a corresponding false positive rate of ca 20%. Performance did not substantially differ either between algorithms or semesters. The best proxies included emergency calls for respiratory or infectious disease causes and emergency room visits.


Implementing HCU-based monitoring systems in small areas deserves further investigations as it could facilitate the containment of COVID-19 and other unknown infectious diseases in the future.


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