Medical workers and researchers in states across the U.S. are now gathering the crucial data needed to understand the new coronavirus and its spread. They’re testing large groups of people for the virus, regardless of whether the person feels sick or has reason to believe they’ve been exposed.
Over the weekend, Oregon State University announced it would begin mass at-home testing in the state. The study, which is being coordinated with the Benton County Health Department, has been dubbed the TRACE project, standing for Team-based Rapid Assessment of Community-Level Coronavirus Epidemics.
Paid OSU students will go door to door in randomly selected neighborhoods in the town of Corvallis, where the university is located. Households that agree to take part in the study will be given nasal swab tests for each participant, with instructions on how to self-administer them. Then the samples will be given back to the workers, who will remain outside the home and a fair distance away to ensure their safety.
All told, some 4,000 tests are expected to be collected over four weekends, with the first round completed yesterday. Participants are expected to get their results back through a secure email within seven to 10 days, along with added guidance from the health department if they test positive.
“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, in a statement released by OSU.
The tests will be used to confirm an active infection of the coronavirus by looking for its viral RNA. While these tests can’t establish whether someone had an earlier infection, such as by looking for antibodies, they should still be able to provide some important information.
For one, our current tracking of covid-19’s spread has largely relied on testing people who are hospitalized with symptoms or who suspect they’re infected. But it’s apparent that a substantial percentage of people infected with the coronavirus experience either very mild or no symptoms at all. By testing a representative sample of people in their homes, the hope is that we’ll get a clearer sense of how often these milder cases are really happening.
These tests might also act as a local barometer for covid-19. If the percentage of positive tests goes down over the study period, for instance, that would be good evidence that the outbreak is waning in the county. The findings should provide some context as to how safe it is to start reopening businesses in the area. New York City has also begun work on a door-to-door testing program in select neighborhoods.
So far, there have been at least 2,354 lab-confirmed covid-19 cases in Oregon, along with 92 deaths. Overall, the U.S. is approaching 1 million confirmed cases, and over 55,000 confirmed or probable deaths as of April 27.
There are limitations to these types of studies, of course. They won’t be able to test for antibodies to a previous infection, so a negative test result doesn’t mean the person never had the virus. These antibody tests are thought to be important for answering questions about how deadly the virus is, as well as how many people in a particular area have actually been infected.
But we need a massive rollout of similar testing programs across the country in order to effectively track the virus and anticipate future outbreaks before they get out of control. With that sort of system in place, it should then be possible to reopen parts of society without risking further large waves of illness. Right now, though, experts generally agree that we’re not there yet.