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Online tool that identifies potential future coronavirus ‘hotspots’ could support test and trace

An online tool that can identify potential future coronavirus ‘hotspots’ could help to support NHS test and trace efforts, researchers have said.

The system works by highlighting at-risk regions based on their numbers of vulnerable people and available hospital resources to handle outbreaks. 

The tool from Oxford University’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science considers data on population age, density, ethnicity and social deprivation.

Experts said the dashboard will allow policymakers to best target resources at a local level while adjusting for changing infection rates and hospital resource levels.

‘Thinking not only regionally but at much smaller scale at the neighbourhood level will be the most effective approach to stifle and contain outbreaks,’ said paper author and Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science director Melinda Mills.

This is needed, she added, ‘particularly when a lack of track and trace is in place.’

Demonstrating its potential, the researchers used the tool to show that the town of Harrow, London, was one local area with an exceptionally high age-related risk of hospital admissions due to COVID-19.

The Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow was also the first to declare a so-called ‘critical incident’ after experiencing a surge in coronavirus patients.

‘By using our online tool, policymakers would immediately have identified Harrow as a potential hotspot of hospital demand,’ said paper author and sociologist Mark Verhagen, also of the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science.

‘Ensuring that local decision-makers have this type of fine-grained information available was a key goal of this study.’

As countries across the globe exit strict lockdown and enter the ‘new normal’ of co-existence with COVID-19, monitoring new infection hotspots will be crucial, the researchers explained.

‘We identify potential health care pressure points in England and Wales where expected hospitalisation rates are disproportionately high and the per capita availability of hospital beds is relatively low,’ the team wrote in their paper.

‘We urgently need to consider how emerging socio-demographic risks, such as social deprivation, ethnicity and population density, structure spatial differences in COVID-19 severity and health care demand.’

As part of their study, the researchers produced online maps to help identify the most at-risk areas for coronavirus in both England and Wales.

These suggest that areas such as the Isle of Wight and Lincolnshire have some of the highest risk factors — as they not only have older-skewed populations but also higher levels of social deprivation.

The researchers have also estimated specific pressure points where demand for health services against COVID-19 is likely to outstrip the baseline local supply.

These areas of concern include both rural areas in Wales as well as the north-east and south-west of England — where expected hospitalisation rates are high, bed capacity is relatively low and alternative hospital services are harder to reach.

Meanwhile, London and other inner-city areas — including in Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester — are highlighted as areas with both deprivation and a high population density, so are at potentially higher risk levels for additional outbreaks.

Although population-based hospitalisation risk tends to be lower in urban centres, some localities in cities may have higher levels of social deprivation and population density, which could counterbalance their relatively low age-related risks.

The full findings of the study were published in the journal BMC Medicine.

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