Survey gives Charlestonians chance to help their city cope with COVID

January 11, 2021
Nurse Tammy Justice Alberts reconstitutes a COVID-19 vaccine to prepare to give it to an MUSC employee.
Nurse Tammy Justice Alberts prepares a COVID-19 vaccine. Photo by Sarah Pack

As South Carolina racks up one of the highest COVID-19 case rates in the country per capita, the Medical University of South Carolina is encouraging people in Charleston to take a small step that could help the city in its efforts to bring the virus under control.

So far, almost 100 citizens have agreed to take a survey that gives them a chance to express their views about COVID-19, vaccines, mask use and more. Michael Sweat, Ph.D., faculty director of the Center for Global Health at MUSC, is leading the survey.

“It’s a real study, it’s serious,” he’s been telling people who have called him after receiving an invitation in the mail to participate. “It’s not a scam.”

Instead, it’s a study that’s measuring people’s attitudes about COVID-19 to help health and government leaders understand them. “There are a lot of vaccine concerns, among particularly African-Americans. We'll get a much better idea about those concerns,” Sweat said. 

“It's useful to know who is going to show up when you offer the vaccine. That could inform vaccine strategies as we go forward. You might want to really prioritize some groups. If there's a lot of reticence, then you need to get out and work to assuage their concerns or make it easier for them. You want to reduce the barriers and increase the demand.”

The survey also gives participants the chance to take a free antibody test so they can find out if they’ve been exposed to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 — and lets researchers see where the virus is spreading, even in people who don’t have any symptoms. That will help leaders prioritize vaccine distribution. 

“Very large proportions of people don't get too sick or sick at all. And so they don't get counted. This is a way for us to get a relatively accurate estimate of how many people really have gotten infected and their demographics.  We can then compare what we get in this random sample to what we see in the testing data or the hospital data. That will give us a feel for who's asymptomatic. It’s really valuable for public health purposes,” Sweat said.

His goal is to get more than 400 people to agree to participate. The MUSC research team is sending recruitment documents, including a letter from the mayor of Charleston supporting the study, to a randomly selected sample of people. The survey is invitation only — you can’t just volunteer for it.

The research comes at a critical time in the pandemic, with the virus surging as vaccine distribution begins. “There are several counties in South Carolina where there are no more ICU beds,” Sweat said.

That’s not the case in the Charleston area, but the number of COVID-19 patients is increasing. Sweat said taking part in the survey, which includes a $25 Amazon gift card as a thank you, is a way for people to contribute to the public good. “This will give us another way to cope with the pandemic.”

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