covid-19 sleuths

Houston school offers COVID-19 'disease detective' online course

Learn how to contact trace COVID-19 with UH's new, online course. Photo by Getty Images

As the nationwide battle against COVID-19 surges on, the University of Houston is launching a free new program to train locals how to identify and warn potentially exposed individuals throughout the region.

The new contact tracing and case identification certificate program — dubbed Epi Corps for Epidemiology Corps — is meant to train up a new type of so-called "disease detective" to combat coronavirus. The 12-hour, online course is currently open to UH students, faculty, and staff — and will soon be made available to the general public, according to the university.

This comes as the Houston Health Department last week announced plans to add 300 new contact tracers in addition to the 300 disease detectives Harris County Public Health plans to recruit. More than 100,000 trained contact tracers will be needed across the country to address COVID-19, according to a report by Johns Hopkins University. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's plan to reopen the state calls for some 4,000 contact tracers to be hired statewide by mid-May.

The goal for the Epi Corps training program is to be scaled statewide, as Texas lags in per-capita testing for coronavirus, ranking 47th out of 50 states. "We really do not have a good handle on how many people have been exposed or how many people are asymptomatic carriers, making contact tracing critically important," said program organizer, Bettina Beech, in a statement.

Contact tracing is considered crucial in the fight against COVID-19, teamed with social distancing, stay-at-home mandates, and good hygiene practices. The Center for Disease Control warns if communities are unable to effectively isolate patients and ensure contacts can separate themselves from others, rapid community spread of COVID-19 is likely to increase to the point that strict mitigation strategies will again be needed to contain the virus.

Through this new program, the corps staffers could be deployed to work on-site at the city and county health departments to assist COVID-19 patients recall everyone they've had close contact with leading up to their infection. The contact tracers would then notify those contacts of their potential exposure and provide education, support, and information to understand their risk.

The contact tracers-in-training will be trained on COVID-19 signs and symptoms, epidemiology, medical terminology, cultural competency, interpersonal communication and interviewing skills, patient confidentiality, and more, according to the school. Those who successfully complete the course will receive a digital certificate, and some students will be eligible to earn credit hours.

The Epi Corps curriculum will be administered via the Blackboard digital learning platform. Plans are moving forward to make a shorter program available to the community at large, including small businesses, in the coming weeks.

The training follows a format similar to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention contact tracing training program for tuberculosis and is based on the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials contact tracing training modules, according to UH.

"Contact tracing, along with large-scale testing, is a critical component to reopening our state and to stimulate the economy, but the national and local public health infrastructure does not have the capacity to handle this task alone," said Dr. Stephen Spann, founding dean of the UH College of Medicine, in a statement. "As a public university dedicated to serving the community, it's incumbent upon us to step up and provide the necessary training so we can get through this crisis together."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Building Houston

 
 

Houston-based medical device and biotech startup Steradian Technologies has been recognized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

A female-founded biotech startup has announced that it has received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Steradian Technologies has developed a breath-based collection device that can be used with diagnostic testing systems. Called RUMI, the device is non-invasive and fully portable and, according to a news release, costs the price of a latte.

“We are extremely honored to receive this award and be recognized by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a leader in global health. This funding will propel our work in creating deep-tech diagnostics and products to close the equity gap in global public health," says Asma Mirza, CEO and co-founder of Steradian Technologies, in the release. “The RUMI will demonstrate that advanced technology can be delivered to all areas of the world, ensuring the Global South and economically exploited regions receive access to high-fidelity diagnostics instead of solutions that are ill-suited to the environment.”

RUMI uses novel photon-based detection to collect and diagnose infectious diseases in breath within 30-seconds, per the release, and will be the first human bio-aerosol specimen collector to convert breath into a fully sterile liquid sample and can be used for many applications in direct disease detection.

"As the healthcare industry continues to pursue less invasive diagnostics, we are very excited that the foundation has identified our approach to breath-based sample collection as a standout worthy of their support," says John Marino, chief of product development and co-founder. “We look forward to working with them to achieve our goals of better, faster, and safer diagnostics."

Founded in 2017, Steradian Technologies is funded and supported by XPRIZE, Johnson & Johnson’s Lung Cancer Initiative, JLABS TMCi, Capital Factory, Duke Institute of Global Health, and Johnson & Johnson’s Center for Device Innovation.

The amount granted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was not disclosed. The Seattle-based foundation is led by CEO Mark Suzman and co-chaired by Bill Gates and Melinda French Gatess.

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