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UW flu study in Oregon School District expands to COVID-19

UW flu study in Oregon School District expands to COVID-19

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UW Health testing facility (copy)

A UW-Madison study that has tracked flu and other respiratory diseases in the Oregon School District for six years is now also testing students and family members for COVID-19.

An Oklahoma epidemiologist helps assuage concerns about the accelerated vaccine development timeline.

One aspect of the research — recent testing of samples stored from the 2019-2020 school year — yielded a surprising discovery: An 11-year-old Oregon student and her parents, in March 2020, were the first known cases of household transmission of COVID-19 in Wisconsin.

The Oregon Child Absenteeism Due to Respiratory Disease Study, or ORCHARDS, has been monitoring school absences and flu and other respiratory illnesses since 2015. Funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the study asks parents to report symptoms of children who are sick at home. Scientists make home visits, swabbing the noses and throats of the students and family members to test for flu and other viruses.

A few years ago, when results showed time off curbs the spread of flu, the Oregon district extended three-day weekend breaks in October, February and April to four-day weekends to try to prevent outbreaks.

With in-person classes resuming this school year and children younger than 12 still not eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, a new three-year, $3 million CDC grant is allowing ORCHARDS to add COVID-19 testing of children and families. Students in grades 4K-12 and their family members can be tested for influenza and SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Each participating family gets a $50 gift card.

“We’re entering this really tumultuous period, as children — only some of whom can be vaccinated — are returning to school,” Dr. Jon Temte, leader of the study and associate dean of the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, said in a statement. “By going out an additional three years now, we’ll be able to document what happens in terms of SARS-CoV-2, influenza and other respiratory illnesses during this evolving pandemic period.”

The researchers partnered with the Oregon School District in part because Temte, study manager Shari Barlow and other team members live in the district and their children have attended school there.

The 11-year-old student found this year to have had COVID-19 last year developed a flu-like illness on March 14, 2020, the day after her school closed because of the pandemic, Temte and other researchers reported last month in the Wisconsin Medical Journal.

The girl’s mother became ill the next day and her father got sick about a week later. All three had relatively mild symptoms and didn’t seek medical care. At the time, they tested negative for flu and 14 other respiratory viruses.

Early this year, when COVID-19 tests became more readily available, the researchers tested ORCHARDS specimens stored from September 2019 to June 2020. They family’s samples were positive for COVID-19.

“To our knowledge, this is the earliest detected household cluster of SARS-CoV-2 in Wisconsin,” the researchers wrote.

The initial case likely was the child or the mother, they said. Eleven other COVID-19 specimens in Wisconsin at the time were identical or near-identical to those of the family, “consistent with limited local spread,” they said.


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