Colorado State University to lead COVID-19 testing for asymptomatic health care workers, nursing home residents

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Read a Q&A with one of the lead researchers:

Learn more about the pilot study:

As part of the state’s plan to expand testing in long-term care facilities, researchers from Colorado State University (CSU) will start conducting COVID-19 surveillance testing of workers and residents in up to 30 skilled nursing facilities in Colorado by September. The tests will provide an early warning system for public health officials and managers at long-term care facilities. This will help prevent outbreaks, monitor the risk of exposure for residents, and help recovered workers return to work.

This project, an agreement between CSU and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), is an initiative of the COVID-19 Residential Care Task Force. The  Colorado Unified Command Center (UCC) launched the task force in an effort to reduce the spread of illness and number of deaths in high-density, group-living settings, like nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

“This is an exciting partnership,” said Dr. Eric France, chief medical officer for CDPHE. “Because some cases of COVID-19 are without symptoms, this type of testing approach is going to be essential in preventing outbreaks. We are grateful for CSU’s support in helping us to protect Coloradans from the spread of COVID-19.”

“We’re incredibly proud of our state for prioritizing this kind of testing in skilled nursing facilities and we’re proud that CSU can support that effort,” said Dr. Nicole Ehrhart, director of the Columbine Health Systems Center for Healthy Aging at CSU.

CSU will receive $4.2 million as part of this agreement. A majority of the funding will go to the testing of asymptomatic workers, with their consent, using nasopharyngeal swabs. CSU will work with state officials to identify the facilities with highest priority for surveillance testing. The Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at CSU will process the human COVID-19 tests.

In April, the lab received Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) certification for laboratory testing performed on humans by partnering with colleagues at CSU’s Health and Medical Center, including Dr. Bruce Smith, who directs the  CLIA-certified laboratory. The CSU lab also worked directly with the CDPHE to obtain human samples for validation testing. The CSU lab’s move to process human tests is part of a national trend at veterinary labs.

Dr. Kristy Pabilonia is the director of the lab at CSU. Her team has previously responded to numerous animal disease outbreaks and has the capacity to test large numbers of samples.

CSU’s role builds on an existing pilot project launched in March with five skilled nursing facilities in the state. As of the end of April, researchers leading the study tested 454 nursing home workers and found 13.1%, or 60 of 454 workers, who did not show symptoms tested positive for COVID-19.  The concept behind the research is a basic principle in disease surveillance, especially during a pandemic.

“We know that there is a surprising number of people who never exhibit symptoms of COVID-19, and we’ve shown that even asymptomatic positive people are infectious to others,” said Dr. Ehrhart. “It’s important that when there’s a community at higher risk for severe illness, like seniors, that we think about how to identify and mitigate the hidden potential for transmission to protect these vulnerable individuals.”

In Colorado, more than 50% of the COVID-19-related deaths have been among older adults and people with disabilities who resided in high-density, group-living settings, like nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

Alan Rudolph, CSU’s vice president for research, said the project underscores the university’s land-grant mission and demonstrates how research can have an immediate impact in Colorado communities. “Our researchers are at a critical interface to answer questions including: How long does it take to proceed from having symptoms to getting the disease, to testing negative and then have no disease?” he said.

CSU Professor Greg Ebel is a co-investigator on this research project.