medRxiv. 2020 Sep 10:2020.09.07.20188813. doi: 10.1101/2020.09.07.20188813. Preprint.
BACKGROUND: Healthcare workers (HCW) treating COVID-19 patients are at high risk for infection and may also spread infection through their contact with vulnerable patients. Smell loss has been associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection, but it is unknown whether monitoring for smell loss can be used to identify asymptomatic infection among high risk individuals, like HCW.
METHODS: We performed a prospective cohort study, tracking 473 HCW across three months to determine if smell loss could predict SARS-CoV-2 infection in this high-risk group. HCW subjects completed a longitudinal, novel behavioral at-home assessment of smell function with household items, as well as detailed symptom surveys that included a parosmia screening questionnaire, and RT-qPCR testing to identify SARS-CoV-2 infection.
RESULTS: SARS-CoV-2 was identified in 17 (3.6%) of 473 HCW. Among the 17 infected HCW, 53% reported smell loss, and were more likely to report smell loss than COVID-negative HCW on both the at-home assessment and the screening questionnaire (P < .01). 67% reported smell loss prior to having a positive SARS-CoV-2 test, and smell loss was reported a median of two days before testing positive. Neurological symptoms were reported more frequently among COVID-positive HCW who reported smell loss (P < .01).
CONCLUSIONS: In this prospective study of HCW, self-reported changes in smell using two different measures were predictive of COVID-19 infection. Smell loss frequently preceded a positive test and was associated with neurological symptoms.