Study shows googling GI symptoms helped predict COVID-19 spikes in some states. But experts warn against using search trends to predict outbreaks

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Data suggests Google Trends has been predictive of COVID-19 outbreaks in certain states, but experts warn against using it to do so absolutely. (Getty Images)
Data suggests Google Trends has been predictive of COVID-19 outbreaks in certain states, but experts warn against using it to do so absolutely. (Getty Images)

The U.S. has seen more than 6.5 million cases of COVID-19 since February, and researchers are still trying to find ways to pinpoint outbreaks before they begin. Now, a new study from researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital suggests a new tactic: Keep tabs on gastrointestinal symptoms people are Googling.

The study, which was published in the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, analyzed data from Google Trends along with data from the Harvard Dataverse, a Harvard-supported website that gathers research data to measure search interest linked with specific gastrointestinal symptoms related to COVID-19. The study’s researchers then analyzed data on COVID-19 cases from 15 states from January 20 through April 20.

The researchers discovered that searches around the loss of taste (aka ageusia), loss of appetite and diarrhea increased four weeks before the rise in COVID-19 cases in most states studied and were particularly notable in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists new loss of taste or smell, nausea or vomiting and diarrhea among the main symptoms of COVID-19, along with more well-known symptoms like fever, cough and shortness of breath.

Study co-author Dr. Kyle Staller, a gastroenterologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells Yahoo Life that the study was inspired by similar research the team did on irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). “As we started getting swept up into the COVID world, we said, ‘This would be interesting to look at,’” he says. “The data really showed that Google Trends appeared to be able to predict, in some ways, spikes in high incidence areas.”

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life that he’s “not entirely surprised” that Google Trends were predictive of COVID-19 outbreaks. “Google has also been able to track influenza trends,” he points out.

But Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life that it can be tricky to figure out what information is relevant and what isn’t in this kind of situation. “It’s something that might give you some information, but there are lots of things that can cause diarrhea and other GI issues,” he says. “You have to be mindful of the signal and the noise.”

As of now, Staller says that “we’re not there yet” for using this kind of information to accurately predict outbreaks. “There’s no substitute for boots on the ground, epidemiologically, and actually figuring out what are cases of COVID,” he says. “But, in a rapidly evolving situation, this could be an extra help for public health officials to say that this is one of several indicators we have when making decisions on allocating resources.”

Schaffner agrees. “We’re not quite there yet. But it may well be as electronic monitoring becomes more precise and is even more real-time, we’re getting closer to having that as a tool to use,” he says.

Adalja says this area of research is “getting better because there’s a much bigger digital footprint.” But, he adds, “The question is, how sensitive of a marker is it?”

Ultimately, Staller urges people to be cautious if they suddenly develop gastrointestinal symptoms. “Just know that it may not be that meal that you ate last,” he says. “It could be a manifestation of COVID-19, which we’ve learned is really a multi-system disease.”

Keep this in mind, too, per Staller: “While it could just be a run-of-the-mill stomach flu, we’re not seeing as much of them lately due to social distancing.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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