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Machine learning forecasting for COVID-19 pandemic-associated effects on paediatric respiratory infections

Objective: The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent government restrictions have had a major impact on healthcare services and disease transmission, particularly those associated with acute respiratory infection. This study examined non-identifiable routine electronic patient record data from a specialist children's hospital in England, UK, examining the effect of pandemic mitigation measures on seasonal respiratory infection rates compared with forecasts based on open-source, transferable machine learning models.

Methods: We performed a retrospective longitudinal study of respiratory disorder diagnoses between January 2010 and February 2022. All diagnoses were extracted from routine healthcare activity data and diagnosis rates were calculated for several diagnosis groups. To study changes in diagnoses, seasonal forecast models were fit to prerestriction period data and extrapolated.

Results: Based on 144 704 diagnoses from 31 002 patients, all but two diagnosis groups saw a marked reduction in diagnosis rates during restrictions. We observed 91%, 89%, 72% and 63% reductions in peak diagnoses of 'respiratory syncytial virus', 'influenza', 'acute nasopharyngitis' and 'acute bronchiolitis', respectively. The machine learning predictive model calculated that total diagnoses were reduced by up to 73% (z-score: -26) versus expected during restrictions and increased by up to 27% (z-score: 8) postrestrictions.

Conclusions: We demonstrate the association between COVID-19 related restrictions and significant reductions in paediatric seasonal respiratory infections. Moreover, while many infection rates have returned to expected levels postrestrictions, others remain supressed or followed atypical winter trends. This study further demonstrates the applicability and efficacy of routine electronic record data and cross-domain time-series forecasting to model, monitor, analyse and address clinically important issues.


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