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MedStar Health receives CDC grant to study symptoms, spread of the coronavirus

MedStar Health received a $1.7 million research grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study symptoms, transmission and prevention mechanisms of the coronavirus over the next two years.

The project, which will seek to recruit as many as 60,000 participants across MedStar’s network, aims to help state and local governments draft better guidelines related to mitigating the infectious disease, hospital officials said during a virtual news conference Tuesday.

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“We can’t have good public policy without good data,” said Dr. William Weintraub, one of the study’s principal investigators and the director of outcomes research at MedStar’s Heart & Vascular Institute. “This is critical to understanding the spread of COVID.”

Study participants will answer a series of questions sent to their email inboxes each day related to their exposure to the virus and their symptoms, as well as whether or not they wore a face mask over the last 24 hours and their vaccination status. The study will incorporate antibody data that participants can report from home and will include responses from people experiencing the coronavirus as well as those who have not.

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The robust surveillance nature of the project as well as the focus on individual behaviors makes it unique relative to other existing studies, officials said. The multi-state effort, led by Wake Forest Baptist Health in North Carolina, will incorporate studies at Atrium Health in North Carolina, Tulane University in Louisiana and the University of Mississippi, as well as MedStar.

“This could not be more timely or more important for community health,” said Dr. Neil J. Weissman, chief scientific officer for MedStar Health, adding that the research will allow the system to “embed” in communities using interactive tools, including both email and a cellphone app.

Even as vaccinations begin to roll out across the country, the threat of the coronavirus will linger for years, especially among communities of color, said Deliya B. Wesley, the scientific director for health equity research at the MedStar Health Research Institute.

Black and Latinx communities have been burdened disproportionately by the public health crisis, accounting for a larger share of cases relative to their populations and nearly three times as likely to die than whites.

The study will “inform the need to mobilize resources or focus on particular strategies” to help those hit hardest by the virus, Wesley said.

Research materials will be distributed in Spanish to address the language obstacles that prevent recruiting Latinx participants, said Dr. Federico Asch, director of the MedStar Health Research Institute’s Cardiovascular Core Labs. He said — in both English and Spanish — that brief, daily participation will have a great impact on researchers’ understanding of the coronavirus.

The study could help officials overcome vaccine hesitancy among specific populations and lower other barriers to access as required. It also can assess the rate of social distancing, mask wearing and other mitigation strategies in communities and target hotspots.

The study already has identified key points of transmission in communities, Weintraub said. Using participant responses to a specific survey, officials have identified the Thanksgiving holiday as a major “super-spreader” event, with about half of the respondents reporting attending a meal with people outside of their households and without face masks, Weintraub said.

MedStar Health, which operates hospitals throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, will collaborate with the Maryland and Washington, D.C., health departments to study potential threats of COVID-19 specific to those areas, said John Davies-Cole, an epidemiologist at D.C. Health.

Potential participants can learn more about the study at MedStarHealth.org/JointheFight. Residents of Baltimore or Washington over 18 years of age are eligible to enroll.

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