Rutgers University hopes to better understand and treat COVID-19 with the largest study of of healthcare workers who have been exposed to the virus.
The study includes more than 800 employees of Rutgers University, University Hospital in Newark and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J., who will be tracked for six months. The goal is to determine how many of Rutgers' 7,000 healthcare employees might get infected by the 800 exposed.
More than 500 study participants have been identified as being 'highly exposed' to COVID-19, according to a university spokeswoman, about 5% of that group tested positive for the virus.
"Because the pandemic is affecting our hospitals as we are providing care at the front-line, we may be able to discover what puts people at greatest risk for acquiring the infection and possibly determine why most get mild illness but some become severely ill," said Martin Blaser, director of Rutgers University's Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine and professor of medicine and microbiology at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in a written statement.
As of last week, more than 9,000 healthcare workers across the country have tested positive for COVID-19 between Feb. 12 and April 9, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But health officials acknowledged the tally was likely underestimated as information on healthcare workers was available in only 16% of the reported cases.
"Healthcare workers throughout the world are on the frontlines of battling COVID-19," said Brian Strom, chancellor of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences in a written statement. RBHS is the university's academic health center and is coordinating the study. "Our hope is that this study and other scientific developments can give state, national, and global leaders the evidence-based tools to ultimately end this pandemic."
The university has also launched two clinical trials involving hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for the virus.
The antimalarial has been touted by President Donald Trump in recent weeks. But health officials have said there was not enough evidence to determine its efficacy.
The Rutgers trials will examine whether hydroxychloroquine in combination with the antibiotic azithromycin can be used as either an antiviral treatment or as a prophylactic against COVID-19.
"While some practitioners across the state have been offering this type of treatment for some individualized cases, it is imperative that a controlled clinical trial with a large patient population takes place in order to ensure the integrity of the results being gathered," said Dr. Steven Libutti, director of the Rutgers Cancer Institute, which is conducting the study.
Meanwhile the coronavirus death toll continues to rise even as the rate of new COVID-19 infections has begun to show signs of leveling off. More than 776,000 cases have been reported in the U.S. as of Tuesday, according to the latest figures from the CDC, with more than 41,700 deaths.