Bernadette Boden-Albala

Bernadette Boden-Albala

The University of California-Irvine, and the Orange County Health Care Agency are conducting a large-scale, population-based study that will generate a more accurate estimate of the true prevalence of the pandemic in Orange County.

The survey will involve serological testing of a representative sample of 5,000 Orange County residents to determine if they have COVID-19 antibodies, UCI said in a statement. The Business Journal first reported this testing was being implemented in our May 4 issue.

It will help guide local health officials as they ease social distancing requirements and gradually reopen the economy–while also allowing them to better identify at-risk populations and understand how long immunity to the virus lasts.

“Testing that is scientifically and statistically sound is absolutely critical to getting people all over Orange County back to work and back to their lives in a safe way,” said Bernadette Boden-Albala, director of UCI’s Program in Public Health and founding dean of the campus’s proposed School of Population Health. “What we’ve seen so far is that low-income and minority communities are experiencing the most severe symptoms and death rates. It’s tragic, and we have to know why this is happening and what we can do to prevent it.”

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The 5,000 Orange County residents selected for the study will be asked to visit one of eight to 10 drive-thru testing sites, where medical personnel will use a simple pinprick to collect blood samples that will be taken to UCI and analyzed for COVID-19 antibodies. The results will be compared to those of a subset of 200 people who report a positive COVID-19 diagnosis or who test positive. This smaller cohort will be tested every two weeks for four months so that researchers can see how immune response changes over time and what groups are most at risk.

The true rate of COVID-19 is unknown because it’s impossible to determine the actual number of infections without widespread testing of a representative sample. Recent surveys in other metropolitan regions of the U.S. suggest that infection rates are much higher – and death rates lower–than previously thought and that rates vary significantly from place to place.

Testing has found antibody levels ranging from 2.8% in Santa Clara County to 4.1% in Los Angeles County to 22% in New York City. This suggests that the fatality rate could be 28 to 80 times less than currently estimated.

“COVID-19 is very much a local affair. Different populations are affected differently. Why did Orange County not see the type of spike in cases that afflicted New York?” Boden-Albala said.

Study participants will be recruited soon, and testing is expected to take place in June. An initial report will be issued this summer, with another report released in early fall.

The Business Journal reported on an earlier stage of this partnership in the May 7 print edition.

Go here for more updates on how OC companies are responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

For ongoing, in-depth coverage of COVID-19’s effects on OC businesses, see the Monday print edition of the Business Journal.