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OSU expands COVID-19 prevalence study to Bend; also will analyze wastewater

(Update: Adding video and quote from OSU official )

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- 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. At the same time, wastewater samples also will be analyzed for genetic evidence.

Random door-to-door COVID-19 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,” said 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 said.

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.

Vice President of University Relations and Marketing of OSU Steve Clark told NewsChannel 21, “This information gives Deschutes County ways to not only engage in contact tracing, but also information that will help guide how reopening continues and how it's managed."

"It gives individuals a sense of, 'What shall I do if I receive positive information, that I tested positive?'" Clark said. "'I contact my doctor.' But it also gives a sense of confidence that public health measures that we’re engaging in are working.”

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,” said Dr. George 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,” said 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.”

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,” said 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,” said 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,” Conway said. “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.

Sewer samples to be examined for genetic evidence of virus

OSU researchers will look in Bend’s sewer system for genetic evidence of the virus that causes COVID-19 in an effort to help determine the virus’ prevalence in the city.

Researchers will analyze “sewer sets” collected from six sewer line locations, looking for genetic material from the novel coronavirus that traveled from infected people into the city’s wastewater system. Researchers will also look at water samples from the city’s treatment plant.

Bend public works staff will collect the sewage samples May 30-31, the same weekend field workers from OSU’s TRACE-COVID-19 project will gather nasal swab samples door-to-door in Bend.

The sewer line locations take in wastewater from the same 30 census blocks where TRACE field staff will do their sampling, allowing sewer analysis results to be compared with nasal swab results. This will provide a means to verify sewage testing technology that so far seems accurate but is still in its early stages.

“The goal is to validate our data with TRACE data, and then go with them to new locations as they’re able to expand their project,” said Tyler Radniecki, associate professor of environmental engineering in the OSU College of Engineering. “A really important step is to continue to validate the reliability of our sewer surveillance data with more traditional prevalence data from the medical community and researchers. Fortunately, the early indications suggest that sewer analysis is a reliable method.”

Radniecki said the research work by OSU is called Coronavirus Sewer Surveillance.

Additional sewer surveillance projects under the direction of Radniecki, OSU Bioengineering Professor Christine Kelly, and Ken Williamson, research and innovation director for Clean Water Services of Hillsboro, Oregon, are underway in Washington County. Williamson is an Oregon State professor emeritus.

Like the city of Bend, which is closely collaborating with the OSU researchers, Washington County is interested in what its sewage can say about the virus’ prevalence.

“Our approach overcomes the issue of asymptomatic carriers by detecting the virus from both symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers,” Kelly said “That eliminates the delays inherent in relying on hospitalization records to confirm the appearance and disappearance of a COVID-19 outbreak.”

Initial funding and support for the work is being provided by the National Science Foundation and Clean Water Services.

There has been no indication that the novel coronavirus can survive as an infectious agent in sewage, Radniecki said, but RNA signatures do survive and are detectable. Oregon State has the lab capability to do the genetic testing, with a predicted turnaround time of about a week.

“We can’t put an exact number on how many people are infected, but we’re the bloodhounds who sniff the virus out, monitor its rise and fall in communities, detect priority hotspots and then alert medical researchers and staff who can go in and take it from there with their knowledge, skills and technologies,” Radniecki said.

On Thursday, Williamson will give a presentation to the U.S. House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure, chaired by Oregon’s Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield.

“The purpose is to explain to Congress the potential impact of sewer surveillance for tracking the spread of COVID-19 in a cost-effective manner – and thus they should provide funds for it,” Radniecki said. “Clinical tests for individuals with the SARS-CoV-2 virus have not been widely available, so it’s hard to understand the progression of the infection in communities. This lack of information hinders best practices for resource allocation. We think we can do something about that.”

Article Topic Follows: Central Oregon

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