Four UMass Institutes to Conduct Statewide COVID-19 Surveillance Program

AMHERST — The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) has awarded $1.5 million to four University of Massachusetts institutes to conduct a statewide surveillance program aimed at improving understanding of the prevalence and incidence of COVID-19 in the Commonwealth.

To date, all known cases of COVID-19 stem from individuals opting to take a test, usually because they are either symptomatic, have been in contact with someone who has had a positive test, or need to take a test for some other reason (such as travel). This new study fills a gap in current surveillance efforts by randomly selecting participants to take a free test (with a small honorarium). This will allow researchers to better understand the level of outbreak in the community, including asymptomatic cases that typically would not be identified by symptomatic-only testing.

The UMass Donahue Institute, the UMass Amherst Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS), the UMass Amherst Institute for Social Science Research (ISSR), and the Center for Public Opinion at UMass Lowell are collaborating to recruit, enroll, and survey a rolling sample of Massachusetts residents who will receive home-based specimen-collection kits to facilitate population-based testing of COVID-19 infection and immune (antibody) response.

The study aims to collect and analyze virus and antibody test-result data for up to 550 Massachusetts residents per month. The surveillance project is anticipated to run for 14 months, with the option to extend it over time. Results will be analyzed and shared monthly with the DPH for timely application to facilitate public-health planning and policy response.

The UMass Donahue Institute, the study’s co-leader, will provide project-level management, assist with preparation of summary reports, and send out incentives to study participants.

“We are extremely excited to help deliver this first-of-its-kind study attempting to measure the true levels of COVID outbreak and antibody response in the population,” said Mark Melnik, director of the Economic & Public Policy Research group at UMass Donahue Institute. “Such data will help public health officials better understand the crisis and help strategize and deploy resources. We are proud for UMass to be providing a unique, cross-campus collaboration aimed at helping the public-health efforts in the Commonwealth.”

IALS, also a study co-leader, will conduct the viral and antibody testing, analyze the data for reporting, and securely communicate test results to participants.

“The actual number of COVID-19 infections are significantly underestimated, primarily due to test availability. At least 50% of people who tested positive from UMass Amherst were asymptomatic,” said Erin Poulin, laboratory manager at UMass Amherst Health Services and general supervisor for the IALS Clinical Testing Center at UMass Amherst.

The Center for Public Opinion at UMass Lowell will be responsible for administering a rolling demographic and recruitment survey that will serve as the testing population for the study. ISSR will provide survey, sampling, and statistical expertise to the project.