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Commentary

Vol. 20 No. 1 (2022)

How should we present the epidemic curve for COVID-19?

DOI
https://doi.org/10.26443/mjm.v20i1.901
Submitted
May 25, 2021
Published
2021-11-15

Abstract

Epidemic curves are used by decision makers and the public to infer the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic and to understand the appropriateness of response measures. Symptom onset date is commonly used to date incident cases on the epidemic curve in public health reports and dashboards; however, third-party trackers date cases by the date they were publicly reported by the public health authority. These two curves create very different impressions of epidemic progression. On April 1, 2020, the epidemic curve based on public reporting date for Ontario, Canada showed an accelerating epidemic, whereas the curve based on a proxy variable for symptom onset date showed a rapidly declining epidemic. This illusory downward trend is a feature of epidemic curves anchored using date variables earlier in time than the date a case was publicly reported, such as the symptom onset date. Delays between the onset of symptoms and the detection of a case by the public health authority mean that recent days will always have incomplete case data, creating a downward bias. Public reporting date is not subject to this bias and can be used to visualize real-time epidemic curves meant to inform the public and decision makers.

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