OSU RESEARCH: Corvallis Among First in Nation for Randomized Coronavirus Tracing

Oregon State University scientists will embark on a groundbreaking project in the coming days as they start testing in the greater Corvallis community to determine the prevalence of the virus that causes COVID-19. 

The unique door-to-door effort is among the first in the nation that will provide an overview of an entire community’s COVID-19 wellness, said Ben Dalziel, an assistant professor in OSU’s College of Science.  

The public health study was developed by four OSU colleges in partnership with the Benton County Health Department, and is called Team-based Rapid Assessment of Community-Level Coronavirus Epidemics, or TRACE-COVID-19 for short. 

The Corvallis study will be completed over four consecutive weekends and will provide important public health information that has been lacking throughout the pandemic. A limited pilot phase of the study in several Corvallis neighborhoods will be conducted Sunday, April 19, to test procedures the study will use in gathering and testing samples. 

“Testing nationally and locally has been focused on those with symptoms, but it’s likely that some people who carry the virus display no symptoms, and they may have been inadvertently involved in spreading the disease without having known that they had the virus,” said Dalziel, the project’s leader. 

“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. 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.” 

In addition to providing information about the disease in Corvallis, Jeff Bethel, an associate professor in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences, said TRACE-COVID-19 can serve as a model for other cities wishing to detect the spread of the novel coronavirus in their communities in Oregon and nationally. 

“We see great value in this project being used as a template for other universities wishing to provide timely and useful information to public health officials in their communities and states,” Bethel said. “Universities with public health, community engagement and lab capacity are particularly well positioned to continue this important work.”  

Each weekend through May 16, trained field staff with TRACE-COVID-19 will visit a sampling of households in a representative set of Corvallis neighborhoods that have been randomly selected and collect samples from 960 people. Corvallis’ population is 58,641, comprising more than half of the 93,053 people who live in Benton County. 

At each home, members of the household will be invited to participate in the study. Those who choose to take part 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 their minor children if they want them to take part. The field staff will wait outside, 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. 

The tests used in TRACE-COVID-19 collect material from the entrance of the nose and are more comfortable and less invasive than the tests that collect secretions from the throat and the back of the nose. 

The 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 the Benton County Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Bethel said participants in the study will be sent their results and those of their minor children by secure e-mail with receipt by standard mail delivery as a backup. Everyone’s personal information will be safeguarded. 

Completed tests will be submitted to the Willamette Valley Toxicology lab to be tested for SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. 

Consistent with state requirements of all labs providing COVID-19 tests, test results, along with personal identifying information, will be shared with the county health department and the Oregon Health Authority. 

“The TRACE study will provide critical information about the spread of the disease in the community, how the epidemic is changing over time and measure how public health recommendations throughout Oregon are working,” said Charlie Fautin, Benton County health administrator. 

“Importantly, this study also will help inform us as to how many people, who have no symptoms of an illness at all, may not realize that they have been infected and may have been able to transmit the disease to others, including family members, friends, co-workers and neighbors.” 

Javier Nieto, dean of OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences and a physician-epidemiologist, said TRACE results will help inform future decisions by state and local leaders. 

“By providing data on how COVID-19 is spreading over time, this project creates a model to guide state and local authorities as they determine how and when communities can safely return to normal social and economic activity,” Nieto said. 

TRACE-COVID-19 is a joint effort by OSU’s colleges of Science, Public Health and Human Sciences, Agricultural Sciences and the Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine, and is in partnership with the Benton County Health Department. The study is being initially funded by OSU and a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and has been aided by work of the OSU Foundation and the OSU Alumni Association. 

“Science can guide us in the race to combat the spread of COVID-19,” said Packard Foundation Interim President Craig Neyman. “We hope in this effort to find one more piece of the puzzle to inform effective policy decisions around COVID-19. Ideas grounded in science and research have real potential to create lasting change and decisionmakers in philanthropy, business, and government must thoughtfully invest in needed research now, so that we can combat this pandemic together.” 

COVID-19, first reported to the World Health Organization on Dec. 31, 2019, has been confirmed in more than 2 million people worldwide and killed more than 133,000 people. In the United States, there have been more than 640,000 reported cases – including more than 1,600 in Oregon – and more than 28,300 deaths nationwide. Benton County has had 25 confirmed cases and four deaths. 

In addition to Bethel, Nieto and Dalziel, other OSU-based project leaders include Brett Tyler, director of the university’s Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing; Justin Sanders, a molecular pathologist in the Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine; Roy Haggerty, dean of the College of Science; and distinguished university professor Jane Lubchenco, also of the College of Science. Other key faculty include Denise Hynes, professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences and associate director for health data and informatics in the Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing; and Allison Myers, director of the Center of Health Innovation in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences. 

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