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Oregon State University expands coronavirus prevalence study to Bend

TRACE COVID-19 collection

By Steve Lundeberg

TRACE-COVID-19, the groundbreaking Oregon State University project to determine community prevalence of the novel coronavirus, is expanding to include two days of sampling in Bend.

Random door-to-door sampling in 30 Bend neighborhoods will occur May 30-31 as a joint effort of OSU-Cascades, OSU faculty researchers in Corvallis and Deschutes County Health Services.

“As Bend and other Oregon communities reopen, it is important that we have baseline information regarding the prevalence of COVID-19 in our communities,” says Becky Johnson, OSU-Cascades vice president.

“This collaborative effort to sample the Bend community will give us needed real-time information as testing nationally and in Oregon has been focused on those with symptoms of COVID-19. It’s likely that some people who have the virus display no symptoms, and yet they may have been inadvertently involved in spreading the disease. With prevalence data from TRACE and other tests and studies, we can better manage COVID-19 in our community and begin to look forward as we reopen our communities and economy,” Johnson says.

Combined approaches in testing

TRACE team leaders say that to study the prevalence of COVID-19 within a community, it is important to randomly sample community residents in a defined geography, not just volunteers who seek to be studied or residents of other nearby communities.

A complementary study of Bend wastewater, under the direction of researchers from the OSU College of Engineering, will occur the same two days. Public works staff from the city of Bend will gather multiple sewage samples in which Oregon State researchers will look for genetic material from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

As with TRACE-COVID-19 – short for Team-based Rapid Assessment of Community-Level Coronavirus Epidemics – the goal of the wastewater study is to paint a picture of the virus’ prevalence within a community. The virus cannot survive as a pathogenic agent in wastewater, but infected people will pass detectable genetic components of the virus into the sewer system, thereby providing a complementary indication of how extensive COVID-19 has been in a community.

“This combined approach of increased testing of asymptomatic individuals and wastewater early-signal surveillance for COVID-19 should provide very helpful insights for our local management of this epidemic,” says Dr. George A. Conway, Deschutes County health director.

TRACE-COVID-19 was developed by five OSU colleges in partnership with the Benton County Health Department. Sampling began in Corvallis the weekend of April 25-26 and continued the subsequent two weekends.

“We’re excited to broaden the scope of TRACE by partnering with the Bend community and Deschutes County,” says project leader Ben Dalziel, an assistant professor in the OSU College of Science. “Having a near-real-time estimate of how many people are infected is something I think many communities may find helpful during reopening. We hope to enable TRACE to partner with other Oregon communities as we receive additional funding.”

How it works

TRACE sampling in Bend is being funded by a grant from PacificSource Health Plans, and the sampling study was initiated in Corvallis by funding from OSU and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

“We are pleased to lend our support to this critical study and the ongoing efforts of OSU and their partners to help safeguard our local communities, including Central Oregon and Corvallis,” says Ken Provencher, president and chief executive officer of PacificSource.

The next weekend of Corvallis sampling will take place in June and will help determine if easing of stay-at-home orders has led to a change in the prevalence of the virus in the Corvallis community, TRACE leaders say.

The Bend sampling will follow the same format as the sampling in Corvallis. Thirty two-person field teams will visit 30 Bend neighborhood census blocks, knock on a random selection of doors and ask household residents if they would like to participate in the study.

In Corvallis, roughly 80% of households who answered their doors when TRACE field staff knocked had at least one person take part in the study, leading to an average of more than 500 samples collected per weekend.

At each Bend residence visited by TRACE field workers, household members who choose to take part in the sampling will be asked to provide information such as their name and date of birth; to fill out a simple consent form; and to answer a few confidential, health-related questions.

Participants will be given a nasal-swab test kit that they administer to themselves inside their home and to their minor children if they want them to take part. TRACE field staff will wait outside each residence, and the participants will leave the completed test kits outside their front door.

“Field staff will maintain a safe distance at all times and will not enter anyone’s home,” says Jeff Bethel, an associate professor in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences and co-director of the TRACE leadership team. “The safety of participants and TRACE field staff is a key part of the study’s research design.”

The swabs used in TRACE-COVID-19 home sampling kits collect material from inside the entrance of the nose and are less invasive than swabs that collect secretions from the throat and the back of the nose, while providing an adequate sample for detection of low levels of virus.

TRACE field workers will leave participants with information about the project and how they will receive their results – expected to be available in seven to 10 days – as well as health guidance from Deschutes County Health Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Participants in the study are sent their results and those of their minor children by secure email with receipt by standard mail delivery as a backup. Everyone’s personal information is carefully safeguarded.

“For individuals testing positive for COVID-19, Deschutes County Public Health nurses will conduct an investigation and follow-up contact tracing,” George says. “This will augment our other efforts to contain the epidemic in our region.”

For more information on the project, visit the TRACE-COVID-19 website. The site includes a list of frequently asked questions.

TRACE-COVID-19 has been aided by work from the OSU Foundation and the OSU Alumni Association. The diagnostic testing component of TRACE operates through a partnership between the Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, which is located at OSU, and Willamette Valley Toxicology.

PacificSource Health Plans will also help pay for the final weekend of sampling in Corvallis next month.

COVID-19, first reported to the World Health Organization on Dec. 31, 2019, has been confirmed in more than 4.8 million people worldwide and killed more than 318,000 people. In the United States, there have been more than 1.5 million reported cases – including more than 3,800 in Oregon – and more than 91,000 deaths. Deschutes County has had 116 confirmed cases and zero deaths.