Early findings from COVID-19 testing in The Villages® encouraging

University of Florida Health experts and their collaborators completed over 2,000 COVID-19 tests in The Villages® last week, and while the number of positive cases is still low, experts urge continued vigilance to reduce the risk of community spread.

A team of volunteer UF Health medical professionals together with personnel from The Villages Health primary care network evaluated 2,280 people who had pre-registered for an appointment. Testing was done for people with symptoms associated with COVID-19 and for those without symptoms.

Of nearly 900 people with symptoms, 23 tested positive. Among 1,400 tests for people who indicated they were not having symptoms, two were positive. While these participants indicated they did not have symptoms at the time they registered online for an appointment, when questioned at follow-up, both indicated recent travel and had developed symptoms such as cough, fatigue and/or loss of taste and smell.

Although the total number of positive results remains low, the number of positives increased slightly as the week progressed, suggesting the infection is starting to move into the community. UF Health experts say it’s more important than ever to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for social distancing, frequent hand-washing and other best practices.  

“These results show evidence of initial community spread; however, it does not appear to be widespread, at least so far. We are continuing to closely monitor the situation,” said Michael Lauzardo, M.D., deputy director of the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute and an associate professor in the division of infectious diseases and global medicine at UF’s College of Medicine, part of UF Health. “While a week is a short period of time, the fact that we saw increases in the number of positive tests as the week progressed raises concerns that the infection is just beginning to take hold in the community.

“Under these circumstances, and in keeping with recommendations from the governor, we would strongly encourage everyone to continue to practice social distancing, and, for persons 65 years of age and older, to remain at home to reduce the risk of further transmission as much as possible,” he said.

UF Health was able to surpass the goal of 2,000 tests for the week because additional testing supplies became available. Working in collaboration with The Villages® community, The Villages Health, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office and state health and emergency management officials, testing will be extended. Visit UFHEALTHCOVID.COM for this week’s schedule, which will be posted once it is updated.

“The Villages is an extremely cohesive, socially connected community. In a situation like we are now facing with COVID-19, this ‘connectivity’ could work against us in enhancing the spread of the virus. However, it appears from the data compiled to date that the concern our residents have for each other and their community overall is resulting in social distancing and self-quarantining,” said Elliot Sussman, M.D., chairman of the board of The Villages Health, and former board chairman of the Association of American Medical Colleges. 

Carla VandeWeerd, Ph.D., director of research for The Villages Health, said area residents have an opportunity to “flatten the curve” in the region.

“The low rates we are finding in our community are encouraging and reflect the commitment that people in our community have not only to their own health, but to the health and well-being of their neighbors and friends,” she said. “We must remain vigilant in following the CDC’s recommendations. These efforts are helping, but they must be maintained for us to be successful in this fight.”

Participants were assessed for symptoms, travel and exposure history and tested if they met clinical criteria. Depending on the severity of their illness, they were further evaluated on-site or at a UF Health facility or sent home to self-quarantine while awaiting test results.

If someone was concerned yet did not have symptoms nor meet standard clinical testing criteria, they had the opportunity to sign up for a UF Health research study that enabled them to receive a test as part of an epidemiological protocol known as community surveillance. The purpose of the study is to assess the degree of asymptomatic viral shedding at the onset of a COVID-19 outbreak. This is a valuable public health activity to identify people with early disease — those who have the virus but are not exhibiting symptoms.

“We still have a lot to learn about this virus, and the factors that determine why some people become very sick, and others do not. We hope to be able to follow the people who we are testing, to see who becomes ill and what symptoms they have, so we can better protect the community and the people who live in it,” said Glenn Morris, M.D., M.P.H.&T.M., director of UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute.  “People who are over the age of 60 are of particular concern, which is why we have been focusing our research efforts in The Villages® and surrounding areas. What we learn will help in management of this epidemic, as well as possible future epidemics.”

The coronavirus research study is thought to be one of the largest of its kind in the United States.

“Research plays a crucial role in guiding policy and practice,” said David R. Nelson, M.D., senior vice president for health affairs at UF and president of UF Health. “Our knowledge base about COVID-19 is still fairly limited, so the more we can learn through studies such as this one, the better we will be able to treat it and prevent its spread in the future.

“The testing has been incredibly efficient and well-organized, and could certainly serve as a model for future testing of large populations,” he added, saying that he is extraordinarily proud of the health care providers and volunteer medical students, physician assistant students and nursing faculty who have led the effort.

Lauzardo said health officials want to keep monitoring the area as the epidemic unfolds.

“We feel like this has been a very worthwhile endeavor, and it will be an ongoing endeavor with an at-risk population that we’re really working hard to keep safe,” he said.

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