Survey will measure COVID's spread in Charleston, including previously undiagnosed cases

November 02, 2020
Mailbox in front of brick house
The faculty director of MUSC's Center for Global Health is encouraging people who live in Charleston to check their mailboxes for an invitation to a COVID-19 survey.

Letters are going out to thousands of people in Charleston as the city works with the Medical University of South Carolina to measure the spread of COVID-19 and see what people think about things like masks and vaccines. The goal is to get a random sample of about 450 people to agree to take part in the study, which will involve answering questions and taking a test to see if they have COVID antibodies.

Michael Sweat, Ph.D., faculty director of the Center for Global Health at MUSC, is leading the effort. “There’s a lot of people who would be happy to help in some way during the pandemic. This is a good opportunity to do that,” he said.

Dr. Michael Sweat 
Dr. Michael Sweat

“In the letter, we will invite them to participate. If they consent, we’ll do a survey with them to find out things like their behaviors, their demographic characteristics, socioeconomic status, where they live and also their attitudes and beliefs about COVID. For example, do they think it’s a real threat? Do they think it’s risky? Do they believe in mask use?"

The survey will also explore beliefs about vaccines. “It will help us in understanding who would be willing to take a vaccine, what their concerns are.”

After people finish the survey, they’ll take an antibody test in a specially designated area at MUSC Health and find out if they’ve been exposed to the coronavirus. If they don’t have a way to get there, Sweat’s team will find transportation for them — free of charge. 

It’s well worth the effort, he said. “We have a very high-quality test. It’s 98% sensitive and 98% specific, with very few false negatives or positives.”

Sweat said determining how many people have been exposed to the coronavirus is important. “If you don’t know how many people are exposed, you can’t calculate the mortality rate. This study will also tell us a lot about who has been exposed — the characteristics of people exposed.”

That second part, knowing the demographics of who’s been exposed, will help public health experts get ready for when a vaccine or vaccines become available. “We’re definitely going to have to triage at first. We’re going to have to pick people who are high risk — not just based on age and comorbidity but also infection rates. The survey will be a lot of help preparing the city for vaccine strategies.”

Participants will get a $25 Amazon gift card. But Sweat said more importantly, they’ll have the satisfaction of knowing they’re helping their community during a crisis. “It’s a great way to do your civic duty.”

Get the Latest MUSC News

Get more stories about what's happening at MUSC, delivered straight to your inbox.