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Oregon State University COVID-19 tracing project expands nationwide

The project started in April with the goal of finding out how prevalent the virus is in communities.

CORVALLIS, Ore. — A first-of-its-kind COVID-19 tracking program that started at Oregon State University (OSU) is going national.

Last April, OSU researchers began randomly testing communities for COVID-19. Their goal was to find out how prevalent the virus was. The researchers teamed up with health care workers and went to door to door at random offering up free COVID-19 tests. Their goal was to test even those carriers with no symptoms and to estimate how many people in the community were infected. The project was named TRACE COVID-19.

"The number of people infected is a key metric and it's a key driver of the epidemic," said project leader Ben Dalziel. "As an infectious disease, the number of people who are infected now plays a big role in determining how many people will become infected in the near future."

It's information that could play a critical role when it comes to deciding when a state should loosen restrictions or tighten them.

Over the months the program has evolved to include testing wastewater for COVID-19 as well. That's because with every flush of the feces of an infected person, an inactive form of the virus enters the system.

"There's a really good correlation between the presence of the virus in wastewater and the prevalence," said Dalziel.

RELATED: Sewer sampling detects COVID-19 in every Corvallis neighborhood

Now, the OSU-based project is going national.

In November, researchers received a $2 million grant from the David and Lucile Packard foundation to create a national TRACE center, expanding OSU's program to universities across the country.

"We see a crying need for that more real-time data elsewhere in the country as well," said Chad English, science program officer for the Packard Foundation.

The researchers say the real-time data could also play a big role in tracking the success of the COVID-19 vaccines and lifting restrictions.

"How vaccine distribution may be impacting... in decreasing prevalence... all that requires information on what the virus is doing," said Dalziel.

"This is the difference between knowing whether it's safe to reopen our economies or whether it's time for us to hunker down," said English.

RELATED: OSU researchers explain development and distribution of vaccines