NMSU to begin large-scale COVID-19 testing for random sample study

New Mexico State University will begin large-scale testing for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 as part of an ambitious new study by a group of interdisciplinary researchers seeking to understand the prevalence of the virus in the campus community as students and employees return for the fall semester.

NMSU leaders, in turn, will use the study’s real-time data to inform their decision-making while navigating the university through the unprecedented task of resuming on-campus academic and business operations, at limited in-person capacities, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Starting in September, researchers on a weekly basis will test up to 250 randomly selected students and employees on the Las Cruces campus for COVID-19. The study is a collaboration with TriCore Reference Laboratories, which recently established a branch lab at NMSU.

Testing for the study will continue for the duration of the fall semester, said Christopher Sroka, assistant professor of applied statistics, who is part of the research group.

Patrick Trainor, assistant professor of applied statistics, and Brook Milligan, professor of evolutionary genetics, also are part of the research group, which is receiving medical guidance from Memorial Medical Center and Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine.

“This study has two functions,” Sroka said. “The primary objective is to understand the prevalence of people in the NMSU community who

Christopher Sroka, assistant professor of applied statistics at New Mexico State University, is part of the research group that launched a study to understand the prevalence of COVID-19 in the campus community. | NMSU photo by Josh Bachman

are infected with COVID-19 but do not show symptoms and limit their exposure in the campus community. The second is to provide real-time data to university leaders, so they have a sense of conditions on campus.”

To coordinate the random selection of study participants, Sroka said the research team has identified groups of people with different risks. The groups include students or employees commuting from out of state; students living in on-campus communal environments such as dorms and sorority or fraternity houses; students who live in shared spaces off campus; and employees who reside in Las Cruces.

“We’ll then take a random sample from those groups,” he said. “Within each of those categories, you have a completely random chance of being selected for a test. By conducting a random selection, rather than having people self-select themselves for testing, this should give us a better representation of the campus community,” he added.

Individuals selected for testing will receive an email notification requesting their participation. While testing is voluntary, Sroka said, individuals are highly encouraged to participate.

“They’ll be doing a great service to the community,” he said.

Those who agree to participate will have to sign an informed consent agreement and complete a short electronic questionnaire. Participants will then receive instructions to visit an on-campus testing site, where they will take a nasal-swab test, a procedure that takes only minutes to complete.

“The turnaround time would be quick,” Sroka said, “because the specimen won’t need to be sent to a different location. Our goal is to have results within 48 hours of the specimen collection.”

NMSU will notify the New Mexico Department of Health when individuals test positive for COVID-19, Sroka said, and health officials will start contact tracing. Individuals who test negative will not have additional obligations beyond the initial test, he added.

Sroka and the research team will use the collected data to track the virus on campus, create projection models, and develop public- and private-facing dashboards for decision-making with assistance from Jon Webster, assistant director for Project Development and Engineering.

“Not only will we be tracking it week to week and tracking in current time, but we would like to get to a point where we could project one or two weeks forward,” Sroka said.

“If our week-to-week numbers show the percentage of people who are infected is stable and lower than the surrounding community,” he added, “that will give the campus community some assurance that our campus is a safe place to be, and we can continue to conduct classes the way we’re doing.”

For more information about the study, contact Sroka at [email protected].

Author: Carlos Andres Lopez – NMSU


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