KANNAPOLIS – Duke University’s MURDOCK Study announced yesterday, June 22, the launch of its Cabarrus County COVID-19 Prevalence and Immunity study.
In April 2020, Governor Roy Cooper announced that the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services is working with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University, and East Carolina University to assess changes in COVID-19 prevalence in Chatham, Cabarrus and Pitt counties respectively.
Participants for Duke’s C3PI study will come from its MURDOCK Study which is based at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis. MURDOCK participants were contacted about voluntary enrollment for C3PI June 9. The MURDOCK study demographics were recruited to reflect the demographics of Cabarrus County. Dr. Kristin Newby, TRANS POP faculty director for Duke, said that taking participants from that study for C3PI will allow them to mimic the Cabarrus County population as well.
“The MURDOCK study itself, the overall pop was a little over 12,500 people,” said Newby. “We recruited to reflect the demographics of Cabarrus County. The participation in the COVID study has to be voluntary. We will offer it to them. And then from there, we will try through our recruitment methods to get a representation of the overall MURDOCK study that reflects the age, race and ethnicity demographics of the cohort.”
The study will ensure that populations such as the African-American and LATINX groups are represented accurately. These groups, Newby said, have been heavily impacted by the virus, and the study will allow researchers to look into any disparities.
The study will track and gather data on the prevalence and immunity of COVID-19 for at least six months. Participants will fill out a weekly survey, answering questions about hygiene habits, social distance adherence, possible symptoms, access to insurance, access to healthcare, careers and routines.
A subgroup of individuals in the study will be randomly selected to participate in testing. Every two weeks, the group will perform at-home nasal swabs for COVID-19 testing. Also, the group will go to a lab for blood tests to check for antibodies, said Dr. Chris Woods, professor for the Department of Medicine and Pathology at Duke.
“The reason to do this is to get a representative idea of what is happening in the epidemiology of the state over time as we open the economy and go back to school. All of these things have the potential to change the spread in the state,” said Woods. “We will reach a state where a sufficient number of individuals will have antibodies. And if the immunity is effective, then we could have herd immunity.”
While he is comfortable in stating that there is at least a short-term immunity that comes with COVID-19 antibodies, Woods said, this study will look at how long it lasts. For example, if people in the study test positive for COVID-19 and for antibodies, but then later in the study test positive again for the virus again, that information can be used to determine how effective immunity is.
Taking participants from the MURDOCK study fast-tracked the C3PI study. Having a group of people who already gave consent to be contacted about future research studies, made recruitment faster, Newby said. MURDOCK participants also fill out annual health surveys about nutrition, exercise, smoking habits and health information like heart disease and cancer. While this study will not look into genetic predispositions for COVID-19 infection, the added data will help when looking at the public health picture of COVID-19 as a whole, she said.
Asymptomatic individuals with COVID-19 are a large part of what the study is trying to track. Testing coupled with survey questions collecting data on symptoms will give researchers a better idea on the rate of asymptomatic individuals in the county, said Woods. Individuals who are asymptomatic could spread the virus unknowingly.
“That has led to one of our main public health interventions which is different from other public health crisis we have had – the stay at home orders,” woods said.
He also said that wearing masks also helps stop the virus from spreading, especially by individuals who are asymptomatic.
One the study participants Veleria Levy, who works for Avita Pharmacy said that she decided to participate in the C3PI study after an encounter she had after mailing a package at a UPS facility.
She was wearing her mask and had walked back to her car after dropping off the package. A man followed her to the parking lot. He knocked on her car window and asked if she liked wearing a mask.
“I looked at him,” said Levy. “I said, ‘I don’t know who likes wearing a mask. We wear it to be safe and mindful of other people.’”
She said the man then continued by telling her that masks don’t really prevent the spread of the virus. Having a son at home who has preexisting health conditions and older parents, she said the man’s statements bothered her.
“That just really prompted me to take the next step to say let me go ahead and do it and return the enrollment for me to participate in this study. There is so much misinformation on COVID-19 being spread across social media – across the air ways,” she said.
Social distancing was also a factor in deciding how testing would be conducted through the study. Participants of the study will use nasal swabs that they can use to collect samples themselves without having to go into a lab or have someone come into their homes. Newby said that it was important to try to maintain as much social distance as possible for this study, which is why they chose to use at-home nasal collections.
Woods said that the group was also looking into having testing participants do their own blood collections. No plans have been made for that yet, he said.
While the study is intended to track the spread and immunity of COVID-19 in Cabarrus County, both Newby and Woods said that this information in conjunction with the work UNC and ECU are performing will give a better view of the impacts of OCVID-19 on the state.
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