Health and Medicine

UNC Gillings School partners with state, local agencies to study COVID-19 cases with mild or no symptoms

The school is working with the the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, Duke University and East Carolina University to assess changes in COVID-19 prevalence in Chatham, Pitt and Cabarrus counties.

A map of COVID-19 locations.
Photo by Martin Sanchez

The UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health is teaming up with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and other academic partners across North Carolina to understand how widespread cases of COVID-19 with mild or no symptoms are in the state and to monitor the prevalence of the disease over time.

“North Carolina’s actions to flatten the curve and fight COVID-19 are working. We know we need more testing of all types, and this research partnership will help us better understand the virus so we can keep our communities safe as we seek to ease restrictions,” said Gov. Roy Cooper.

The Gillings School, including the North Carolina Institute of Public Health, is working with the NCDHHS, Duke University and East Carolina University to assess changes in COVID-19 prevalence in Chatham, Pitt and Cabarrus counties. Participants will be recruited across different populations and monitored over several months to understand the spread of the virus.

“We have to focus our collective resources – across government, private and public sectors – to defeat this virus. Our research partners are integral to winning the fight,” said NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen.

The Gillings School’s role in the project developed as the result of ongoing work between the Chatham County Public Health Department, the Chatham Health Alliance and NCIPH. Launched by Gillings School alumnus and CCPHD Health Promotion and Policy Division Director Mike Zelek (MPH ’12) in 2018, the CCPHD worked with NCIPH to develop a rigorously sampled cohort of Chatham residents that could efficiently and effectively estimate a wide array of community issues at a population level in Chatham County.

NCDHHS saw an opportunity to leverage this in its ongoing effort to assess the prevalence of COVID-19. Outreach from state epidemiologist Dr. Zack Moore and Gillings School alumnus Aaron Fleischauer (MSPH ’99, Ph.D. ’02), career epidemiology field officer in North Carolina for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, helped to align Carolina and NCDHHS in these efforts.

NCDHHS is coordinating with the Department of Epidemiology and NCIPH at the Gillings School and the UNC School of Medicine to use this cohort to conduct COVID-19 surveillance and develop population-level estimates of infection prevalence in the community. It serves as part of a coordinated statewide effort to learn more about what percentage of people have no symptoms and better understand the true number of COVID-19 infections in North Carolina. The project will be led by Ross Boyce at the School of Medicine; Allison Aiello, professor of epidemiology; and Aaron Fleischauer at NCDHHS, along with coordination by John Wallace, senior data advisor at NCIPH.

“These studies will seek to address some important knowledge gaps while building on existing partnerships including the North Carolina Partnership for Excellence in Applied Epidemiology, a collaboration between the DHHS and UNC-Chapel Hill,” said Aiello.