FluTracking, an online surveillance system developed in the Hunter Region for tracking symptoms of flu and COVID-19 in Australia and New Zealand, has revealed some important insights into the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
In recent weekly surveys, FluTracking participants have recorded historically low respiratory and cold-like symptoms.
Coordinator of FluTracking, Dr Craig Dalton from HMRI’s Public Health Research Program, said that social distancing appears to have decreased the transmission of many different types of respiratory virus – the rate of people with cough and fever has plummeted.
“The social distancing the community have taken up leads to less opportunities to transmit virus between people, so few people are infected and fewer people get sick. The rapid social distancing by the general community may have averted a public health disaster,” Dr Dalton said.
“We mustn’t relax our vigilance, but these initial findings are early reassuring signs that social distancing is working. We have to continue with strong social distancing measures and aggressive case identification, contact tracing and isolation as well.”
Numbers of participants in the FluTracking survey has surged as people all over the country rally to contribute to the control of COVID-19 in Australia. Some 23,000 new people have joined in the past two weeks. Over 60,000 responses are being received in Australia each week and over 40,000 in New Zealand, with researchers expecting the total to pass 120,000 in the coming weeks.
The past two weekly survey results recorded 48 people who had received a positive test to COVID-19, of whom 13 (27%) reported a change in their taste or smell – a new emerging symptom of COVID-19.
A public health physician, Dr Dalton was co-author on a recent research paper that informed international guidelines on pre-emptive controls designed to limit the impact on intensive care units. He believes that disease tracking will give health services a valuable insight into community attack rates.
“COVID-19 and influenza have a lot of similar symptoms and are hard to disentangle, aside from the pathology results,” he says. “As to whether having the flu can make coronavirus worse, we want to learn more about that.”
The Deputy Chief Health Officer of Australia, Dr Paul Kelly, is encouraging all Australians to join FluTracking, likening it to citizen science as Australian cases of COVID-19 rose to 5795, with around 500 of them having no overseas links or links to other cases.
The website records postcodes and health authorities are now looking to it as an early warning system for virus hotspots.
"It is very quick, it is on the web, when you join up you are asked some small details about where you live and so forth, just so we can have tracking across Australia and a map of hotspots of people with respiratory disease," Dr Kelly said.
Information on the website is confidential. Data but not contact information is shared for research.
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