OSU’s COVID-19 TRACE project gets $2 million gift for national expansion

Oregon State University’s project that helps find how widespread COVID-19 is in a community will soon expand across the nation. 

a person standing in a room: Tracer staff bring samples back to their staging area in Eugene.

© Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard
Tracer staff bring samples back to their staging area in Eugene.

OSU’s TRACE project sent people from the university into communities, knocking on doors and asking people to voluntarily submit a sample to see if they have COVID-19. The purpose is to get a better picture of how prevalent the virus really is in a community, because not everybody has access to testing or may be asymptomatic. 

The program started in April in the Corvallis area, and has since expanded to communities like Eugene, Bend and Newport. Now, with a $2 million gift from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, OSU will create a national TRACE Center and expand the project to interested communities across the nation, a university news release said. 

“The number of confirmed cases in a community is different than the number of people who have the virus,” Ben Dalziel, director of the project and assistant professor in OSU’s College of Science, told The Register-Guard. “Not everyone has access to testing and because folks can be asymptomatic yet still transmit. The value proposition of the center is to try to estimate the number of people in the community (who) are infected with the virus at a particular time, which continues to be relevant, as much or even more so heading into this new sort of phase with the vaccine hopefully rolling out.”

More than 100 research universities across the nation have the capacity to roll out the TRACE project in their own areas, Dalziel said, and many institutions have expressed interest in the project, which spurred the expansion. 

Right now the project is designed to be run through a university-public health partnership, so OSU spokesman Steve Clark said it’s likely they’ll expand it through universities and colleges. But it could be in areas where there isn’t a college or university, and the county public health department chooses to take it on instead. 

“Institutions could include colleges, universities and local health departments,” Clark said. 

The new national center is open to changing up its approach since one-size-fits-all won’t apply. 

“One thing that’s important with the center is to make sure that whatever happens in a particular community is tailored to that community,” Dalziel said. “So we’re not going to come in and say ‘this is how you do it.’ It’s going to be a two-way endeavor.”

The new national center won’t require any new brick and mortar additions to campus. Its employees will still work at OSU, with a focus on the TRACE Center. The $2 million will mostly go toward full-time positions in the center that will focus on consulting with the communities in other states running the project.

There will also be some funding delegated to making sure they have the right infrastructure for storing and collecting all the data, especially because managing private health information can be a heavy lift

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