A groundbreaking new Oregon State University study kicks off in Corvallis this weekend, aimed at tracking the novel coronavirus, identifying asymptomatic cases, and monitoring the spread of infection. The public health study involves door-to-door testing of some 960 Corvallis residents—about 1/60th of the population—over a series of four weekends. Researchers at the university are hoping it can shed light on the prevalence and spread of infection, key pieces of information when it comes to considering when to lift current restrictions.
“There was an essential gap across the country in terms of knowing, community-wide, who actually was bearing the virus that causes COVID-19,” says Steve Clark, Vice President for University Relations at OSU. “Testing across the nation and possibly even worldwide has really been about those individuals who are presenting the virus, presenting the disease. We were looking for a way to statistically test the community as a whole.”
A pilot run starts this Sunday to test capacities and systems, with plans for a full roll-out of the study—known as Team-based Rapid Assessment of Community-Level Coronavirus Epidemics, or TRACE-COVID-19—next weekend.
“We are flying blind in many ways because we do not know how many people are infected with the virus and how that is changing over time,” Ben Dalziel, an assistant professor in OSU’s College of Science, said in a press release. “Without this knowledge, it is much more difficult to implement effective control measures and to forecast the spread of the disease. Right now, we are managing the pandemic mostly looking in the rearview mirror. We need to be looking forward, and that's what this study will help allow.”
The study, believed to be the first such community-wide evaluation in the nation, represents a collaboration between four different OSU colleges—Agricultural Sciences, Veterinary Medicine, Science, and Public Health and Human Sciences—who were prompted to come together by a question from a federal scientist about whether universities could help in tracking the virus spread. They’ve partnered with Benton County Health Department, and will send field staff door-to-door —after being tested for the virus themselves and receiving a negative result, and with appropriate protective gear—in a representative set of Corvallis neighborhoods, collecting samples from 960 people to give them “a statistically accurate survey” of its 58,641-strong population.
The field staff involved will give those who agree a nasal-swab test kit, which they can then administer themselves inside while the field staff wait outside. Once completed, participants can leave the kits outside for collection. Test results will be available to individuals in 7-10 days, and the aggregate will then be shared with the county and the public.
According to the university, their tests use different tools to those being used by medical clinics, and are being conducted with existing university equipment. “We are expanding the testing capacity,” says Clark. “We are not conflicting with or taking from the supply nationally.”
OSU is hoping the study, which is being funded by the university and with a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, can be replicated nationwide. “We would like to not only take this to other Oregon communities, but we expect other universities and private and public sector members in other states, to say, 'How can we work with you to do it in our state?'” says Clark. “We are ready to collaborate.”
Phase 2, says Clark, will be a study that will include not just virus testing, but also antibody testing. “We think that’s an essential tool in helping to understand how to battle back COVID 19.”
After Sunday’s pilot, testing will begin on April 25, to be conducted over four weekends. “Over the next four weeks we will really find out if that virus is presenting in an increased level, if it’s declining, or staying the same,” says Clark. “This is information that is not available now and it’s the kind of information that we need to know as Oregonians, and people throughout the world, [so we can decide] when and how safely we can reopen our communities and our economies.”
More information can be found at the TRACE-COVID-19 website.