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Carroll Hospital enters partnership to study how many people have gotten COVID-19, and where

Carroll Hospital is one of 13 hospitals around the state that will be collaborating with the Maryland Department of Health on a coronavirus antibody study, with the goal of determining how many of the state’s residents have been previously infected with COVID-19.

Antibodies, or serology, tests are done after a full recovery from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and can identify those who were previously infected but not those who currently have an active infection, according to Christopher Grove, chief of pathology at Carroll Hospital.

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In the study’s initial phase, more than 6,000 people will be tested across the 13 different hospitals. According to Grove, Carroll Hospital will collect samples from approximately 200 to 300 patients over the course of three to four weeks. Those samples will be compiled with samples from other participating hospitals in the state.

Over Marylanders have tested positive for COVID-19, but the actual number of those who are infected, according to Grove, might be much higher given the fact that there were low rates of testing early in the pandemic and those who were asymptomatic might have never taken a test.

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Christopher Grove is chief of pathology at Carroll Hospital.
Christopher Grove is chief of pathology at Carroll Hospital. (Courtesy photo)

“With the understanding that there is an asymptomatic infection I would suspect the percentage of antibody-positive individuals will be higher than the current number of positive cases of active infection,” Grove said in an email.

The results of the study will help to identify areas in which the virus is most prevalent and could assist the state in distributing educational materials to those certain areas.

“Results of the study may show areas of increased incidence and prevalence of infection and this data may be used to focus educational efforts and other resources to lower the spread of disease,” Grove said. “Understanding the level and pattern of unrecognized community transmission of COVID-19 is crucial to curb the transmission in the community, as well as to plan for preventing any future waves of the pandemic.”

The Maryland Department of Health has established criteria for testing, and only those who have blood drawn as part of routine clinical care may be included in the study. These are patients who are not being tested for COVID-19 and who are not presumed to be infected. Only those who have not had a positive test within the past 14 days will have their blood drawn for the study.

“For instance, if a patient presents to the emergency department with a complaint of chest pain, routine blood samples are collected. Once the necessary tests to rule out things like a heart attack are completed, the blood sample is routinely saved for a period of time. Rather than discarding the samples, they will be submitted for use in the study,” Grove said. “Health care providers within the emergency department determine eligibility — patients can’t independently request to be enrolled in the study.”

All blood samples will be sent to the Maryland Department of Health, and the testing will be conducted by the Maryland Department of Health Laboratories Administration. No testing will be performed at the participating hospitals, according to Grove.

Grove hopes the results of the study can provide important evidence that will help create local and national policies and procedures aimed at preventing future waves of the pandemic.

However, he thinks that it’s up to individuals themselves to follow social distancing protocols in order to truly ease the spread of the virus.

“The pandemic has been a challenge on several fronts — everything from managing long-term care facilities, the shift to telemedicine, the shutdown of elective surgical procedures, and the fear and uncertainty of protecting your patients, your colleagues, and your family,” Grove said. “At the end of the day it’s up to individuals to abide by the social contract we have with each other to wash our hands, wear a mask, and social distance. If we do these things we can mitigate the spread of the virus until we have an effective vaccine.”

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