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How a Spike in These Google Search Terms Can Predict the Next COVID-19 Hotspots

September 14, 2020

How to predict the next COVID-19 hotspot? Check Google Trends, which compiles search requests by state, for areas with the highest number of searches of gastrointestinal symptoms.

It works, according to a new study by Massachusetts General Hospital published in the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology. Researchers adopted the same system used years ago that monitored pandemic influenza trends. People who have COVID-19 usually search for the same GI symptoms as people who think they have the flu: loss of taste, loss of appetite, abdominal pain, diarrhea and vomiting.

The Mass General researchers, who studied search trends from Jan. 20 to April 20 using Google Trends and the Harvard Dataverse COVID-19 database, found that New York, New Jersey, California, Massachusetts and Illinois reported the highest number of COVID-19 cases three to four weeks after a surge in GI symptom searches on Google.

“Our data underscore the importance of GI symptoms as a potential harbinger of COVID-19 infections,” Kyle Staller, director of the hospital’s gastrointestinal motility laboratory, wrote in the study, “and suggests that Google Trends may be a valuable tool for prediction of pandemics with GI manifestations.”

A four-week lag time produced the strongest link between symptom search volume and COVID-19 case volume, specifically for ageusia, or loss of taste (five states), diarrhea (three states) and loss of appetite (one state).

What does this mean for us? Well, as this is written, New Hampshire and Rhode Island are the top two states searching for “ageusia.” (Connecticut is No. 30.)

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