An aberration detection-based approach for sentinel syndromic surveillance of COVID-19 and other novel influenza-like illnesses

Andrew Wen, Liwei Wang, Huan He, Sijia Liu, Sunyang Fu, Sunghwan Sohn, Jacob A. Kugel, Vinod C. Kaggal, Ming Huang, Yanshan Wang, Feichen Shen, Jungwei Fan, Hongfang Liu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Coronavirus Disease 2019 has emerged as a significant global concern, triggering harsh public health restrictions in a successful bid to curb its exponential growth. As discussion shifts towards relaxation of these restrictions, there is significant concern of second-wave resurgence. The key to managing these outbreaks is early detection and intervention, and yet there is a significant lag time associated with usage of laboratory confirmed cases for surveillance purposes. To address this, syndromic surveillance can be considered to provide a timelier alternative for first-line screening. Existing syndromic surveillance solutions are however typically focused around a known disease and have limited capability to distinguish between outbreaks of individual diseases sharing similar syndromes. This poses a challenge for surveillance of COVID-19 as its active periods tend to overlap temporally with other influenza-like illnesses. In this study we explore performing sentinel syndromic surveillance for COVID-19 and other influenza-like illnesses using a deep learning-based approach. Our methods are based on aberration detection utilizing autoencoders that leverages symptom prevalence distributions to distinguish outbreaks of two ongoing diseases that share similar syndromes, even if they occur concurrently. We first demonstrate that this approach works for detection of outbreaks of influenza, which has known temporal boundaries. We then demonstrate that the autoencoder can be trained to not alert on known and well-managed influenza-like illnesses such as the common cold and influenza. Finally, we applied our approach to 2019–2020 data in the context of a COVID-19 syndromic surveillance task to demonstrate how implementation of such a system could have provided early warning of an outbreak of a novel influenza-like illness that did not match the symptom prevalence profile of influenza and other known influenza-like illnesses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number103660
JournalJournal of Biomedical Informatics
StatePublished - Jan 2021


  • COVID-19
  • Deep learning
  • Syndromic surveillance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Computer Science Applications
  • Health Informatics


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