There were three times as many suspected COVID-19 cases presented to GPs during the peak of the pandemic than shown in official COVID-19 test results, according to research led by Queen Mary University of London.
The study, published in the British Journal of General Practice, also shows that black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) groups were twice as likely to present with COVID-19, and this is not explained by other factors such as other health conditions, obesity and social deprivation.
Lead author Dr Sally Hull from Queen Mary University of London said: “Our results suggest that COVID-19 prevalence during the peak of the epidemic was higher than previously thought. The official COVID-19 test statistics are likely to have underrepresented the extent of the epidemic, as many people with COVID-19 would not have been tested, including those with milder symptoms or those who could not access testing centres.
“Much of the COVID-19 epidemic is being managed in primary care which has had to adjust rapidly to online consultations. We need timely reporting of COVID-19 test results to practices, and diagnostic information from NHS 111, so that practices can provide continuing care to patients with more severe episodes.
“It’s going to be very important how GPs record and manage cases in their community, as this can provide an early warning system if cases are rising again in an area and if we’re about to see a second wave of infection.”
Attention on COVID-19 initially focused on hospital presentations and intensive care, but little was known about the pattern of early presentations at GP surgeries. Community testing ceased in England on 12 March 2020, hence the extent of asymptomatic and milder symptomatic cases in community settings remains unknown.
The researchers studied anonymised data from the primary care records of approximately 1.2 million adults registered with 157 practices in four east London clinical commissioning groups (Newham, Tower Hamlets, City and Hackney, and Waltham Forest) during the peak of the London epidemic during March and April. Three of the four boroughs had death rates in the top five for London boroughs and 55 per cent of the population are from ethnic minorities, hence the area is well placed to examine the over-representation of black and South Asian populations in suspected COVID-19.
The study found that:
Dr Sally Hull added: “The high prevalence among BAME patients remains a big concern, and we now know that ethnicity is still a risk factor even after you take account of social deprivation, long-term conditions and BMI. So there is something else driving this, which urgently requires more research.”
The study focuses on suspected cases of COVID-19 as official COVID-19 test results were not sent to GPs during the study period.
The study was not able to include potentially important measures in the analysis, such as household size, employment factors, travel and the availability of personal protective equipment.
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