U of M COVID-19 study on asymptomatic health care workers begins in Buffalo

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Practicing social distancing in a hallway corridor inside Stellis Health in Buffalo, Dr. Jason Halvorson conducts a COVID-19 test on himself.

Gently moving a small cotton swab up his nose until it touches the back of the throat, it takes just 25 seconds, but by the look of it, it’s not pleasant.

"It’s not painful, it’s just not the most comfortable thing in the world," Halvorson said.

But, he’s willing to do it for research.

"Our motto is we do things to help our community, we believe in that a lot, so this is a way that we can help our Minnesota community at large," he said.

Stellis Health is the first clinic system in the state to participate in the University of Minnesota study testing health care workers who don’t appear to be sick.

"A lot of the early data suggests that much of the transmission happens from somebody who looks and feels fine, to the next person forward that they infect; in health care workers it’s assumed that potential would be much higher," said Ryan Demmer, Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Community Health at the University of Minnesota.

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Demmer said 500 health care workers will be tested around the metro, with the possibility of increasing that to 2,000 participants.

"This is what they call the PCR test, so it will test if you have the virus now, it doesn’t tell you if you were infected previously," Demmer explained.

Once tested, samples are shipped to a California lab and returned four to six weeks later.

"We have to wait for four to six weeks so we don’t compete with hospitals who are testing sick patients," he said.

Demmer said the results will help determine infection models for Minnesota.

"If we don’t know the prevalence of the population at any given time that is carrying the virus, and therefore can transmit it, it’s hard to inform those models and how they work," Demmer said.

Testing will also help determine who in the health care system is most likely to be infected and show no symptoms.

"They are potentially superspreaders in the system," Demmer said.

"The idea of me being a significant vector for spread is something that I think a lot about," Halvorson added.

Dr. Halvorson said he’s hopeful results will lead to better information for health care workers and their patients.

"We thought it was a great idea to participate," he said.

Demmer said there is strong interest in the study in the hospitals and clinic on the University of Minnesota campus, and Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul is also a possibility for testing, where many COVID-19 patients are currently being treated.