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6 ways IU experts are helping Indiana respond to COVID-19

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INDIANAPOLIS — The COVID-19 pandemic is a global issue that’s required a lot of local solutions and problem-solving.

Indiana University experts across the state have risen to the challenge, conducting critical research, working with state and local leaders, and mobilizing resources to keep Indiana communities as safe and healthy as possible.

1. Pioneering a scientific approach to statewide virus tracking

Beginning in April 2020, IUPUI researchers partnered with the Indiana Department of Health to conduct periodic statewide COVID-19 testing and analysis to measure how the virus was spreading in Indiana. Because of this partnership, Indiana is the only state in the country that has been able to do a scientific random sample study of COVID-19 at the state level.

The research team at the IU Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health at IUPUI analyzed thousands of viral and antibody test results from Indiana residents to measure the general prevalence of COVID-19 in the state. This is an important distinction from the total number of cases, as researching prevalence helped shed light on the number of people who were infected with the virus but weren’t showing any symptoms.

Over all three phases of the study so far, IUPUI researchers contributed groundbreaking scientific knowledge to the world’s understanding of COVID-19, including:

  • Finding that more than 40 percent of individuals infected with COVID-19 are asymptomatic — emphasizing the importance of masking and social distancing, as close to half of everyone infected showed no signs of being sick.
  • Calculating the first generalizable infection-fatality rate for COVID-19 by age, race, ethnicity and sex — underscoring the gravity of preventing infections, especially among people 60 and older.
  • Finding that only one of out of every 11 true infections was identified by symptomatic testing — highlighting the importance of frequent testing among people with no symptoms.
  • Identifying the loss of taste and smell as key symptoms specific to COVID-19 infections.
  • Identifying that public health measures, such as shelter-in-place orders, reduced the spread of the virus.

2. Limiting the spread of COVID-19 in central Indiana

IUPUI experts were also called upon to help Indianapolis and the Marion County Public Health Department stop the transmission of COVID-19.

In July, the Fairbanks School of Public Health was awarded a $10 million contract to expand contact tracing in Indianapolis. The funding is part of the nearly $80 million allocated by the City-County Council in June for programming to help residents affected by COVID-19.

Contact tracing tracks the person-to-person transmission of an infectious pathogen, such as the virus that causes COVID-19.

So far, the school has hired and trained more than 200 contact tracers, who communicate with Indianapolis residents when they test positive for COVID-19. The contact tracers work to identify everyone a COVID-19-positive person has come into close contact with during their infectious period and inform them of their potential exposure, so they can self-quarantine to avoid spreading the virus to others. Contact tracers also connect people with local resources, such as food banks and rental assistance, to help them stay home through their recovery.

3. Providing educational resources to improve nursing home care

Indiana was one of the first states to roll out a program to help nursing homes tackle the challenges of the pandemic.

The program, called the Indiana Nursing Home COVID-19 Action Network Extension of Community Healthcare Outcomes, is funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and led by experts at the IU School of Medicine, the Fairbanks School of Public Health, the Regenstrief Institute and Parkview Health.

More than 230 nursing homes across the state signed up for the 16-week program, which offers weekly virtual calls for nursing home leaders to learn COVID-19-related best practices and guidance from subject matter experts, as well as to discuss their own experiences with each other. Topics have included vaccine storage, infection control, proper use of personal protective equipment and how to handle staffing shortages.

4. Reducing the mental health burden on teachers and schools

Researchers at the IU School of Social Work and the IU School of Nursing also teamed up to help reduce COVID-19-related “secondary trauma” among local teachers and other school personnel. The term refers to the psychological burden experienced by people who work with vulnerable populations, especially during times of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, IUPUI researchers and a community partner are working to deploy peer-driven activities, such as workshops and discussion groups, in local schools to encourage a culture in which the emotionally difficult aspects of educational work are openly discussed and acknowledged.

Partner schools on the project are North Central High School in Indianapolis and Indianapolis Metropolitan High School, an alternative charter high school that is part of Goodwill of Central and Southern Indiana.

5. Studying vaccine safety and efficacy in Indiana

The development of safe and effective vaccines is critical to our ability to stop the pandemic and return to some semblance of a more normal way of life.

In September, IU School of Medicine experts were tapped by a global biopharmaceutical company to help evaluate a COVID-19 vaccine candidate.

The IU study site — the only one in Indiana — is part of the potential vaccine’s Phase III clinical trial in the U.S., which is the last required stage of study before it can be approved by the Food and Drug Administration for widespread public use. The IU research team set a goal to recruit a diverse group of over 1,000 Indiana residents at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, such as essential workers.

6. Safeguarding our campus communities and economic impact

In addition to educating more in-state students than any other university in Indiana, the activities of IU and its students support one in every 26 jobs in the state — illustrating IU’s role as an important driver of economic activity here.

Throughout the 2020-21 academic year, IU has implemented a number of health and safety policies to keep its campuses operating safely and allow for as many on-campus academic, research and creative activities as possible. Thanks in part to these policies and guidance from some of IU’s top medical and public health experts, COVID-19 positivity rates on IU campuses statewide have continued to fall, recently reaching below 1 percent.

In fact, in a study by IU School of Public Health-Bloomington and IU School of Medicine researchers, a review of COVID-19 testing data from IU’s fall 2020 semester showed no clear evidence of increased COVID-19 risk with classes taught in person.