Miami-Dade County and the University of Miami on Friday launched what they say is the largest community study yet to detect the spread and infection rate of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
In the coming weeks, UM medical students will begin calling 750 residents weekly, randomly picked based on demographics and geography to reflect the county’s diverse population. After a few screening questions, residents selected for testing will be asked to visit one of 10 testing centers where Miami-Dade County paramedics will use finger-pricks to collect blood samples to test for the virus’s antibodies.
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In a press briefing Friday, University of Miami cancer researcher Erin Kobetz said while two other studies looked at community spread, Miami-Dade’s will be the first to provide the most definitive picture.
“This is the first true community surveillance initiative that's occurring nationwide,” she said. “So when we do this work here, we provide a window into how the coronavirus is not only affecting us locally, but the rest of the United States and probably the larger Western Hemisphere.”
Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the county has received 20,000 kits to be split between the study volunteers and first responders.
UM plans to run the test over the next four weeks, as the county heads into what’s expected to be the highest infection rate: The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has forecast the number of cases to peak in Florida on May 3.
The study was set up to detect how the infections may be changing, which could allow the county to make operational changes, Kobetz said.
Random sampling could also detect infection clusters or hidden, asymptomatic patients who may be unknowingly spreading the disease. So far, testing centers have only done testing on people with symptoms or over 65. It would also give volunteers a heads up if they do carry the antibodies to be more careful.
“I expect we're going to find a ton of people that have no symptoms whatsoever,” Gimenez said. “And where are those people? Because those are probably the most dangerous ones.”
The findings could help the county better understand how stay-at-home orders and social distancing are working and whether it needs to take more aggressive action, he said.
“The one factor that we don't have, that nobody has anyhere, is what percentage of the population is actually infected,” Gimenez said. “Are there groups somewhere, because all we're testing right now are people 65 and older, or people that have had symptoms.”