Collaborating to Combat COVID: A multi-faceted study extends across Penn State research institutes and into the community to fight the effects of the pandemic in Centre County
Centre County residents have managed to remain relatively untouched by the physical effects of COVID-19 since the pandemic broke out in early 2020 — although that may be changing as of mid-September, with positive cases sharply on the rise as Penn State students settled in to campus and the State College area.
But even though the vast majority of residents had not been infected by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, almost everyone has been negatively affected by it in some way. In fact, in a survey of 8,000 local residents, 96 percent described their lives as having been either moderately or significantly disrupted by the pandemic.
The survey is part of the Centre County COVID-19 Data 4 Action Project, a far-reaching, interdisciplinary study at Penn State. The project brings together researchers from Penn State’s Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, Social Science Research Institute (SSRI), and Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI), collaborating at an unprecedented level to closely track the biological and socioeconomic issues associated with the virus locally.
The collaboration extends well beyond academia. The study relies on the ongoing participation of Centre County residents, and results are shared with community leaders and decision-makers, including borough and county officials, school district superintendents, hospital administrators, and managers of long-term care facilities.
“We’re trying to leverage all the assets that we have to fight this pandemic from multiple angles. It’s really important right now,” says Meg Small, assistant research professor in Health and Human Development working with the Penn State Social Science Research Institute.
The journey to immunity
Getting a handle on the biological health risks of the pandemic is the first priority of the study, Small says. That involves focusing largely on immunity.
“The thing about COVID is that it hits us with no inherent immunity at all,” explains Andrew Read, director of Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. “As infectious disease biologists, we are fascinated by how you get from absolutely no immunity to the sort of immunity that allows measles and flu and things to be relatively minor problems.”
That journey to immunity will look different and unfold a bit more unpredictably in a college town, with the sudden influx of a large number of students from all over the world, than it would in many other settings.
“We have sort of a unique situation here, where we have large numbers of individuals coming in at very predictable times, bearing immunity and infection, into a relatively small resident population. … The immune dynamics we are about to see, the way immunity changes through time, it’s very hard to predict those from the mathematical models right now for this sort of community,” Read says. “But we are going to see it in real time over the next few months, and from there we will develop much better models which will then allow others in communities like ours – for example, military bases or resort towns or other college towns – to predict what will happen in their settings. ... We’re in kind of a sweet spot where we can use our expertise to help the local community, as well as do first-class science that we believe will translate way beyond the county.”
In order to keep tabs on the spread of immunity through the local community, participants are tested quarterly for antibodies at the CTSI Clinical Research Center laboratories located in Noll Lab on the University Park campus. As reported on the online dashboard at data4action.psu.edu, as of September 18, only 18 out of 999 samples, or 1.8 percent, had tested positive for antibodies indicating prior exposure to SARS-CoV-2.
“That shows almost no immunity, no antibody positivity, within our local community. It’s not very far off from what it was when this whole thing started in March,” Read says.
The community could see transmission rates of the disease start to slow when immunity levels are found in 10 or 20 percent of the population, Read says, but he estimates that two-thirds to three-fourths of the population would need to test positive for antibodies in order to achieve the kind of immunity that could lead to a safe return to “normal” life.
“We’re a million miles away from that right now,” he says.
Read believes there is only one safe way to reach that widespread level of immunity.
“Going to herd immunity ‘naturally’ would involve a lot of sickness and death. That is not a strategy – it’s a disaster,” he says. “Going to herd immunity with a vaccine, if it’s a safe and effective vaccine, is obviously the critical way to go.”
“One of the things I think is going to be useful in our study is we will know what the levels of immunity are at all points going forward in time, so we’ll know how much risk there is when infected individuals come into the area,” Read adds. “Eventually, we’ll be able to see how many people get a vaccine, what the immune response is like to the vaccine compared to natural immunity, and in both cases, how quickly the antibody levels wane away.”
Until a vaccine is widely available, the community will need to continue to rely on social distancing and other mitigation efforts to stay safe. That is where the other main component of the study comes into play, with social scientists looking at the socioeconomic impact of COVID-19 on the Centre County community.
“The effective management of this disease is all behavioral and has broader social and other implications for peoples’ lives,” Small explains. “People are really facing challenges out there, and we really want to understand the nature of those.
“Immediately, of course, we’re concerned about the physical health risks of this. But the long tail of the economic, educational, family, and psychological impacts – having those data will help us identify unmet needs and help leaders redirect resources more effectively. That’s going to get us through a much faster recovery, and increase our resilience over the long haul.”
The socioeconomic data is collected and assessed through a series of surveys that go hand-in-hand with the biological sampling.
Helping in the face of crisis
Local residents are still being recruited to volunteer for the study, Small says. Individuals who wish to participate should visit data4action.psu.edu, or call (814) 753-4799 to complete a brief, anonymous survey. At the end of the survey, participants can supply contact information if they wish to take part in further aspects of the project. The initial cohort is expected to be capped at 2,000 people, and is open to any permanent resident of Centre County over the age of 18.
Within two weeks of completing that initial 10-minute survey, participants who have agreed to continue with the study are contacted via email with a follow-up survey, covering topics ranging from anxiety levels, to mask-wearing and other safety practices, to medical and economic information.
Participants are also sent a request to set up an appointment at the clinic in Noll Lab. Once there, they are screened for COVID-19 symptoms before having a small vial of blood drawn and providing a saliva sample and hair sample.
The hair sample is tested for cortisol, which can be an indicator of stress levels. The saliva sample is tested for the presence of active SARS-CoV-2 virus, and the blood sample is tested for antibodies. In another example of local collaboration, samples are sent to Mount Nittany Health for testing after they are processed at a campus lab.
While results are reported confidentially in aggregate, the individual antibody results are sent directly to participants via email. Many volunteers cite this as their primary motivation for participating in the study.
However, according to Susan McHale, director of the Social Science Research Institute, “An equal number talk about being community-minded. They want to do whatever they can to help, and if giving their information is going to help the larger community, then they want to do that.”
In fact, McHale says, that desire to find a way to be helpful in the face of crisis is a motivating factor for many of the researchers involved in this vast collaborative effort, as well.
“I think that a big reason why a lot of our researchers are interested is because they’re feeling like they want to do something. There’s a lot they can’t do anything about, but this is something they could bring their expertise to bear on and have a positive impact,” she says. “This is not something ephemeral or abstract; this is data for action. We want to help solve problems using science. And this [pandemic] is a huge, complex problem.”
‘Culture of collaboration’
In addition to the clinical researchers, social scientists, and life scientists, McHale says, the teamwork involved in this project extends from the parking office, to faculty from five different colleges, and to university Provost Nick Jones, whose office is providing the initial funding for the project. This all reflects Penn State’s strong “culture of collaboration,” she says.
“We managed to get this going because Penn State has a unique capacity to get groups together and put people in a room together in a hurry,” he says. “I don’t think we, Life Sciences, would have been able to get all the human subject work up and running in anything like the timely manner that has been possible because of the CTSI and SSRI expertise. The other part of this is, if this was just us, then all of the social science we’re going to get out of this – the other health consequences of COVID, the economic impacts, the mental stresses – none of that would be possible. So to me this is a really good example of the whole being way greater than the sum of the parts.”
Small considers the local participants to be important collaborators, as well.
“We couldn’t do this without the people who are willing to come in and participate. We are very appreciative,” she says. “We’re all part of this community, too. And when this started, we said, ‘We have this expertise on campus, and we want to use it to benefit the community. But we also want the community to have the opportunity to help inform our science.’ It truly is this bi-directional way we’re working here.”
As long as there is sufficient funding, Read envisions this project continuing for several years, with research moving in different directions as new information emerges.
“This is COVID-19, and there’s no reason to not think there’s going to be a COVID-24 or a COVID-28. This study could conceivably go on for a long time,” he says. “Once we have these core cohorts in place, with individuals we are regularly contacting, more and more things can be butted on to that core.”
Potential future areas of study could include symptoms like loss of smell and the role of comorbidities in developing immunity, Read says. In addition, a student cohort is being planned, with research potentially targeting things like the pandemic’s impact on academic matriculation and changes in career opportunities.
Transparency is a high priority for the Data 4 Action team, and aggregate results will continue to be shared with the public and with local leaders.
“As things progress, I think the way we report back to the community is going to be especially important, and that’s not going to be in a bunch of scientific papers. That’s going to be in town halls or through media articles, through the dashboard, and those sorts of things,” Read says.
County Commissioner Michael Pipe believes the research will have widespread impact.
“The information gathered from [the study] will provide local, statewide, and national leaders with a better awareness for something we can’t see with the naked eye, but which for a moment brought our world to grinding halt,” Pipe says. “The science will lead us out of this perilous time and help to ensure we are better prepared for the next pandemic.”
Ultimately, Read says, “Research is the way to get eyes on a problem which community leaders can’t get any other way. I’m very proud that we have this capacity and capability that we can use to help the community.”
Karen Walker is a freelance writer in State College.