To use laboratory data to assess the specificity of syndromes used by the New York City emergency department (ED) syndromic surveillance system to monitor influenza activity.
For the period from October 1, 2009 through March 31, 2010, we examined the correlation between citywide ED syndrome assignment and laboratory-confirmed influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). In addition, ED syndromic data from five select NYC hospitals were matched at the patient and visit level to corresponding laboratory reports of influenza and RSV. The matched dataset was used to evaluate syndrome assignment by disease and to calculate the sensitivity and specificity of the influenza-like illness (ILI) syndrome.
Citywide ED visits for ILI correlated well with influenza laboratory diagnoses (R=0.92). From October 1, 2009, through March 31, 2010, there were 264,532 ED visits at the five select hospitals, from which the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) received confirmatory laboratory reports of 655 unique cases of influenza and 1348 cases of RSV. The ED visit of most (56%) influenza cases had been categorized in the fever/flu syndrome; only 15% were labeled ILI. Compared to other influenza-related syndromes, ILI had the lowest sensitivity (15%) but the highest specificity (90%) for laboratory-confirmed influenza. Sensitivity and specificity varied by age group and influenza activity level.
The ILI syndrome in the NYC ED syndromic surveillance system served as a specific but not sensitive indicator for influenza during the 2009-2010 influenza season. Despite its limited sensitivity, the ILI syndrome can be more informative for tracking influenza trends than the fever/flu or respiratory syndromes because it is less likely to capture cases of other respiratory viruses. However, ED ILI among specific age groups should be interpreted alongside laboratory surveillance data. ILI remains a valuable tool for monitoring influenza activity and trends as it facilitates comparisons nationally and across jurisdictions and is easily communicated to the public.