Predicting SARS-CoV-2 infections for children and youth with single symptom screening


Symptom-based SARS-CoV-2 screening and testing decisions in children have important implications on daycare and school exclusion policies. Single symptoms account for a substantial volume of testing and disruption to in-person learning and childcare, yet their predictive value is unclear, given the clinical overlap with other circulating respiratory viruses and non-infectious etiologies. We aimed to determine the relative frequency and predictive value of single symptoms for paediatric SARS-CoV-2 infections from an Ottawa COVID-19 assessment centre from October 2020 through April 2021.

Overall, 46.3% (n=10,688) of pediatric encounters were for single symptoms, and 2.7% of these tested positive. The most common presenting single symptoms were rhinorrhea (31.8%), cough (17.4%) and fever (14.0%). Among children with high-risk exposures children in each age group, the following single symptoms had a higher proportion of positive SARS-CoV-2 cases compared to no symptoms; fever and fatigue (0-4 years); fever, cough, headache, and rhinorrhea (5-12 years); fever, loss of taste or smell, headache, rhinorrhea, sore throat, and cough (13-17 years). There was no evidence that the single symptom of either rhinorrhea or cough predicted SARS-CoV-2 infections among 0-4 year olds, despite accounting for a large volume (61.1%) of single symptom presentations in the absence of high-risk exposures.

Symptom-based screening needs to be responsive to changes in evidence and local factors, including the expected resurgence of other respiratory viruses following relaxation of social distancing/masking, to reduce infection-related risks in schools and daycare settings.

Lead Researchers

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  1. Richard Webster

    Investigator, CHEO Research Institute

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