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Negative COVID-19 Test Data Provides Clues for Winter Respiratory Infections

The percentage of people testing negative for COVID-19 in England who reported symptoms consistent with influenza-like illness (ILI) peaked across all age groups in December but had remained at relatively low levels since January, new figures showed.

Symptoms reported in the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Infection Survey could give valuable information about other respiratory infections circulating in the population and a breakdown of affected age groups, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.

Rates of ILI, defined as having a fever plus a cough and/or sore throat, in those testing negative for SARS-CoV-2 peaked across all ages in the 3 days leading up to Christmas Day at 5.6% but had reduced to 1.4% by 21 January 2023. The low rate had continued since then, with 1.7% of that cohort reporting symptoms consistent with ILI in mid-February, the analysis found.

As of the week ending 14 February, the percentage of people testing negative and reporting ILI symptoms was highest for children aged 2 years to school year six at 3.9%, equivalent to around 1 in 26 children. The lowest rate was seen in people aged 65 years and older at 1%, or around 1 in 100 people.

ILI Symptoms in People Testing Negative for SARS-CoV-2

Among the general population testing negative for COVID-19 in England:

  • Symptoms of a sore throat peaked at 17.2% in the days leading up to Christmas – and was highest for children and young adults
  • Symptoms of a fever reached a high of 6% around the same period in December
  • Symptoms of a cough reached a reported high of 26.4% between Christmas and New Year, having peaked amongst the youngest children at 40.7% in the week leading up to Christmas Day

Between 14 December 2022 and 10 January 2023, those more likely to report symptoms consistent with ILI were females when compared with males, people who were disabled, those who visited hospitals, people who had contact with those under 18 years of age from outside their household, high street shoppers, and those who vaped.

Over the same 4-week period, people who had a 'flu vaccination in the 2022 to 2023 season, or in both the 2021 to 2022 and the 2022 to 2023 season, were less likely to report symptoms consistent with ILI than those who had not had a 'flu vaccination in either season, the statisticians reported.

The Nuffield Department of Medicine at the University of Oxford publishes a weekly analysis of symptoms reported in those testing negative for SARS-CoV-2 via a lateral flow (PCR) test. In partnership with the ONS, they are conducting analyses to find out whether the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Infection Survey could be used to monitor self-reported symptoms consistent with ILI among those who test negative for COVID-19 in England.

Spring Vaccine Booster Campaign

The estimated number of people testing positive for COVID-19 in England for the week ending 21 February 2023 was 1,298,600, or 2.31% of the population.

On Tuesday, the UK Health Security Agency confirmed preparations were underway for a COVID-19 booster vaccine in the spring for vulnerable individuals. It followed advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation that the vaccine should be offered to adults aged 75 and over, residents in a care home for older adults, and individuals aged 5 years and over who were immunosuppressed.

Professor Wei Shen Lim, chair of the JCVI's COVID-19 Committee, said that the spring programme would "bridge the gap to the planned booster programme in the autumn, enabling those who are most vulnerable to be well protected throughout the summer".