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Texas Health, UT Southwestern launch collaborative study of COVID prevalence in DFW

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DALLAS — SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has infected more than 3 million people in the U.S. and more than 12 million worldwide, resulting in more than 550,000 deaths. Despite the high number of confirmed cases, the true prevalence of COVID-19 infections is believed to be underestimated due to insufficient testing capacity and a high percentage of asymptomatic people.  As of July 9, there have been about 230,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Texas, including nearly 30,000 in Dallas County and more than 16,000 in Tarrant County.

Andrew Masica, M.D., left,
and Amit Singal, M.D.

A major challenge to containing the spread of COVID-19 is a shortage of information about where the virus is spreading and why certain populations are affected more than others. To gain a better picture of the unfolding pandemic in Dallas and Tarrant counties, researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center and Texas Health Resources will conduct what is expected to be one of the nation’s largest studies on community prevalence of COVID-19 by testing tens of thousands of people who represent a cross-section of the North Texas population.

“The DFW COVID-19 Prevalence Study will provide vitally important insights into the distribution and spread of COVID-19 throughout our community,” said Daniel K. Podolsky, M.D., President of UT Southwestern. “A deeper understanding of who is most exposed and how the virus is spreading will help policy makers as well as civic and business leaders to formulate effective mitigation and containment strategies and highlight where we have opportunities to improve the health of local communities through equitable public health strategies. We are deeply grateful to all community members and supporters who have committed to help us advance this critical research.”

The DFW COVID-19 Prevalence Study aims to enroll approximately 45,000 Dallas and Tarrant County residents from across the entire spectrum of diversity in our community, as well as occupations at higher risk for exposure such as grocery store and airline employees. The range of socioeconomic status as well as diverse racial and ethnic communities will be surveyed and tested for active COVID-19 infection and evidence of past infection, then followed over time to provide insights into how individuals’ immune responses evolve and how hot spots emerge in the community. 

UT Southwestern, the region’s top academic medical center, will collaborate with Texas Health Resources, the health system that cares for more patients than any other provider in North Texas, to set up testing sites across both counties.

“We want to learn more about the disease in every way we can, and the best way to do that is by harnessing the power of our two organizations,” said Barclay Berdan, CEO of Texas Health. “Together, we can conduct scientifically strong research and use the information generated to help with the prevention and treatment of this disease here in DFW as well as for communities throughout the country.”

The study is being supported by funds from both Dallas and Tarrant counties and the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth as well as members of the business and philanthropic communities together with the collaborating organizations — UT Southwestern and Texas Health Resources.

“We need to better understand the exposure of COVID-19 in our local communities so we can better intervene, limit its spread, and save lives,” said Amit Singal, M.D., Associate Professor of Internal Medicine and Population and Data Sciences who is Principal Investigator for the study. “Dallas and Tarrant counties are incredibly diverse. We have carefully designed our study to specifically characterize COVID-19 exposure across many of the racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups that comprise this region.”

The study will recruit equal numbers of participants across Dallas and Tarrant Counties’ three most common racial/ethnic groups — non-Hispanic white, non-Hispanic black, and Hispanic — to represent the community’s diversity and spectrum of COVID-19 related risk factors.

“A major concern about COVID-19 is that the virus impacts certain groups differentially, and that’s why we’re so committed to this initiative. We want to use insights from the study to help address these disparities and guide actions to promote health across the diverse population we serve,” said Andrew Masica, M.D., Chief Medical Officer of Reliable Health for Texas Health and study co-principal investigator. “Conducting this type of participatory research across the extended DFW community is fully aligned with the mission of the UTSW-Texas Health collaboration as a regional health network.”

A mailed study invitation letter will be sent to randomly selected, 30,000 Dallas and Tarrant county households in selected geographic areas. Separately, the study will examine the prevalence of COVID-19 infection among occupation groups at higher risk of being exposed to the disease. Approximately 14,000 subjects from various industries in both Dallas and Tarrant counties will be included for data collection.

“Time is of the essence given the significant impact that COVID has already had on the U.S. population including our local communities in Dallas and Tarrant Counties,” said Jasmin Tiro, Ph.D., a co-investigator and an associate professor of population and data sciences at UT Southwestern. “We are collaborating with many community organizations and leaders to get the word out about this extremely important study and help encourage invited residents to step up and participate. Our goal is to rapidly recruit all participants in five months.” 

As recruitment progresses, interim data will be analyzed by the study team; the collaborating institutions will provide updates to area stakeholders and government officials to help guide policy planning.

About UT Southwestern Medical Center

UT Southwestern, one of the premier academic medical centers in the nation, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty has received six Nobel Prizes, and includes 24 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 16 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 13 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The full-time faculty of more than 2,500 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in about 80 specialties to more than 105,000 hospitalized patients, nearly 370,000 emergency room cases, and oversee approximately 3 million outpatient visits a year.

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