COVID-19 SURVEY PROJECT
ECU researchers join statewide COVID-19 survey project
A team of East Carolina University public health experts are part of a statewide partnership on a project that will explore the impact of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic on North Carolina. Based in ECU’s Brody School of Medicine and the College of Nursing, the researchers join others from UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University and the N.C. Division of Public Health.
Gov. Roy Cooper announced the partnership in April and detailed the goals of the project—to learn more about how coronavirus spreads. The universities will use surveys and testing to explore the numbers of people infected with COVID-19 and the percentage of people who are asymptomatic or have recovered from infection. The survey focuses on virus trends in Cabarrus, Chatham and Pitt counties and how the virus impacts physical and mental health, family, economy and other factors in those counties. Survey participants will also submit samples to be tested for coronavirus.
The project in Pitt County is referred to as the Pitt County Community Prevention and COVID-19 Testing Study, or Pitt County ComPACT Study.
The ECU researchers make up an interdisciplinary team from epidemiology, public health, medicine and nursing. Dr. Aaron Kipp, principal investigator and assistant professor in the Department of Public Health, is joined by Drs. Suzanne Lea and Greg Kearney, associate professors in the Department of Public Health; and Dr. Bill Irish, professor and vice chair for research in the Department of Surgery. Dr. Krissy Simeonsson, associate professor of pediatrics; and Dr. Charleen McNeill, College of Nursing, provide clinical expertise on the team. The Pitt County Department’s Health Director Dr. John Silvernail and Public Information Officer Amy Hattem round out the Pitt County team.
“Of specific interest is how common asymptomatic cases are and how these cases may be impacting ongoing transmission,” Lea said. “We are interested in learning how the epidemic control measures have been impacting individuals. Beyond assisting the state in their understanding of the epidemic, results will help ECU and Pitt County to better respond to the needs of those living in the county.”
Participants will be asked to provide a teaspoon of blood each month at the health department. A nasal swab will also be requested at that visit and then again two weeks later. We will instruct participants on how to self-collect the nasal swab. An online survey will also be requested two times per month. It is critical that participants adhere to the entire study timeline, which will last into the 2021 flu season to achieve the research goals.
“Our current plan is to advertise the study to a wide range of groups in Greenville and throughout Pitt County,” Lea said. “Interested individuals will be able to complete a survey online. From that group of respondents, we will select a smaller group of approximately 300 who will receive follow-up surveys every two weeks.”
Participants will be studied for at least six months so that researchers can record and analyze how coronavirus exposure and infection shifts. Results from testing will be communicated to the participant, while participants with active positive tests will be notified for follow-up with health care providers. The Pitt County Health Department will also be notified of positive results.
The nature of the collaborative survey project lends itself to delve into the many unknowns surrounding the novel coronavirus.
“From a population health point of view, a collaborative effort is essential to investigate some unknown questions,” Lea said. “For example, an antibody survey of this kind will estimate the number of people previously infected in the respective counties. When repeating antibody testing over several months in the same people, we can estimate antibody persistence.
“The scientific community does not know the extent that antibodies are present in the general population. We also do not know how long antibody persistence remains in a community group. We are embarking on this study to plan for future outbreaks of this magnitude and to answer some questions about this virus that will help plan future public health activities.”
Lea said the project will provide hands-on learning opportunities for students in ECU’s public health programs.
“The coronavirus outbreak has provided a real-time public health and epidemiology experience for our public health students,” Lea said. “We expect that some students will have the opportunity to gain valuable experience assisting with study implementation, management, analysis, and reporting.
“ECU is proud to collaborate with our community partners,” Lea said. “In this challenging time, we gladly lend our expertise and collaboration for the benefit of all North Carolinians.”