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Accurate influenza forecasts using type-specific incidence data for small geographical units

Abstract

Influenza incidence forecasting is used to facilitate better health system planning and could potentially be used to allow at-risk individuals to modify their behavior. For example, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) runs an annual competition to forecast influenza-like illness (ILI) at the regional and national levels in the US, based on a standard discretized incidence scale. Here, we use a suite of forecasting models to analyze type-specific incidence at the smaller spatial scale of clusters of nearby counties. We used data from point-of-care (POC) diagnostic machines over three seasons, in 10 clusters, capturing: 57 counties; 1,061,891 total specimens; and 173,909 specimens positive for Influenza A. Total specimens were closely correlated with comparable CDC ILI data. Mechanistic models were substantially more accurate when forecasting influenza A positive POC data than total specimen POC data, especially at longer lead times. Also, models that fit individual counties separately were better able to forecast clusters than were models that directly fit to aggregated cluster data. Public health authorities may wish to consider developing forecasting pipelines for type-specific POC data in addition to ILI data. Simple mechanistic models will likely improve forecast accuracy when applied at small spatial scales to pathogen-specific data before being scaled to larger geographical units and broader syndromic data. Highly local forecasts may enable new public health messaging to encourage at-risk individuals to temporarily reduce their social mixing.

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