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Original article

Vol. 151 No. 4950 (2021)

Mimics and chameleons of COVID-19: patient presentation and accuracy of triage during the first wave

  • Andrea S. Jauslin
  • Noemi R. Simon
  • Nina L. Giudici
  • Marco Rueegg
  • Tobias Zimmermann
  • Matthias Diebold
  • Sarah Tschudin-Sutter
  • Raphael Twerenbold
  • Christian H. Nickel
  • Roland Bingisser
Cite this as:
Swiss Med Wkly. 2021;151:w30103


STUDY AIMS: To quantify mimics and chameleons of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), to analyse the diagnostic accuracy of the triage protocol, and to describe the resulting groups of mimics and chameleons – including their presenting symptoms and final diagnoses.

METHODS: Diagnostic accuracy study including all adult patients tested for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus type 2 (SARS-CoV-2) at the emergency department of the University Hospital Basel, Switzerland during the first wave of pandemic in spring 2020. Diagnostic accuracy of triage was determined by calculating sensitivity, specificity, positive and negative predictive value, and positive and negative likelihood ratio. Triage to the group of suspected (+) and not suspected (–) COVID-19 was considered the index test, whereas a SARS-CoV-2 polymerase chain reaction test result was used as reference standard. Mimics were defined as false positives and chameleons as false negatives.

RESULTS: Of 2898 patients included in the analysis, 191 were true positives, 895 were false positives (mimics), 9 were false negatives (chameleons) and 1803 were true negatives. This resulted in a sensitivity of 0.95 (95% confidence interval [CI] 0.92–0.98) and a specificity of 0.67 (95% CI 0.65–0.69) for standardised triage. Among mimics, the main categories of final diagnoses were other infections (n = 513, 57.3%), cardiovascular diseases (excluding cerebrovascular) (n = 125, 14%), and non-infectious diseases of the respiratory system (n = 84, 9.4%). Fever (n = 357, 39.9% vs n = 104, 54.5%), cough (n = 466, 52.1% vs n = 126 66%), and smell or taste dysfunction (n = 60, 6.7% vs n = 24, 12.6%) were less frequently observed in mimics than in COVID-19 patients. Eight of nine COVID-19 chameleons presented with either nonspecific complaints (weakness and/or fatigue) or gastrointestinal symptoms.

CONCLUSION: The quantitative assessment of COVID-19 mimics and chameleons showed a high prevalence of mimics. Clinical differentiation between true positives and false positives is not feasible due to largely overlapping symptoms. Prevalence of chameleons was very low.


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