In the mission to research COVID-19 in North Louisiana, it takes a village.
Louisiana Tech University, Grambling State University, LSU Health Shreveport and several health clinics across the region are working together to sequence the COVID-19 virus to learn how it's spreading and if any new variants arise.
Genomic sequencing allows scientists to identify and monitor how the coronavirus changes over time into new variants, understand how these changes affect the characteristics of the virus and use this information to better understand how it might impact health.
Through these partnerships, the institutions are offering greater learning opportunities for their students and building community trust and education in public health. The project is funded by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.
Previously, there wasn't much research about how COVID was spreading or evolving in the region. Paul Kim, associate professor of biological sciences at Grambling, said before the project began less than 0.5% of positive cases in Lincoln Parish were sequenced, compared to about 2% sequenced across the country.
“COVID-19 models suggest that we need to sequence 5 percent of all positive cases to detect emerging variants early,” Kim said.
This setback was mainly due to lack of resources, said Jamie Newman, associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Applied and Natural Sciences at La. Tech. For a time, LSU Health Shreveport was the only institution in the region with sequencing capabilities. Because of this, other samples from the region would be shipped elsewhere, making them less likely to get sequenced in a timely manner, Newman said. Now that Grambling also has sequencing capabilities, scientists can collect COVID samples and study them in time to actually act upon the information collected.
"We just weren't in a position where we had easy access to sequencing," Newman said. "But with new technology and resources at each institution coming together, the research is now being made possible."
Folks who come into participating clinics and test positive for COVID are asked if they would like to submit their swab for the sequencing project. Submitted swabs are then taken to a lab at either LSU or Grambling, and results are analyzed by researchers from the three universities and made available for the public online at nla-health.com.
Social workers also play a role in this project. Elise Reed, assistant professor and director for Grambling's School of Social Work, said the school helps by building partnerships in the community, engaging citizens for the project and educating them about crucial public health topics.
Tonya Oaks Smith, executive director of university communications and marketing for La. Tech, said the project's combination of health information dissemination and COVID data collection has helped bring equal access to healthcare and healthcare information for the North Louisiana population.
"We've talked about inequity and imbalance in healthcare and availability for all of our populations, and so I think this partnership really helps to start balancing that out," Smith said.
For example, Reed said they were able to set up food distribution for patients in need at one of the clinics. They've also incorporated educational materials, such as on basic COVID information, when people decide to partake in the project.
"I think it's just awesome that social work is involved," Reed said. "Our profession is based on building relationships. Before we go into any type of helping process, a person has to trust you; there has to be some level of rapport, and I believe that's what we bring to the table."
Dr. Jackie White, medical director for The Health Hut, a partnering clinic, said patients at participating clinics are presented with a one-page consent form to learn about the project and decide if they want to participate. So far, no patients have declined to be part of the research project, said Chelsea Streets, office manager at The Health Hut. This is significant because in the past, patient samples have been largely taken without patient consent, according to Newman.
"We really want to be transparent about what we're doing and give that information back to the members of the community so that they can see how they're contributing," Newman said.
Findings to date show the delta variant is still prominent in the area, but samples for the project haven't been coming in as often because COVID numbers are down. If that changes, and the number of COVID cases goes back up, the same infrastructure will be in place to collect more swabs. Newman said the project will also look to study other diseases in the future, such as influenza.
"We're definitely looking at the the potential of what we've established here with with COVID for other pathogens, other viruses," Newman said. "We may not learn a tremendous amount by sequencing the flu, but certainly being able to understand the infections that exist in your community and maybe how they change over time can lead to in vaccines, the ways we treat people or the ways we screen people — and the ways we prepare as a community for any type of health outbreak."
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This article originally appeared on Monroe News-Star: La. Tech, Grambling, LSU Health Shreveport help track COVID-19 spread