Michigan State Public Health COVID-19 SeroNet Team in Action

A team of MSU researchers seeks answers to understand the barriers to COVID-19 antibody testing and vaccinations in Flint. A research team collects data to understand which public health communication strategies are most effective. Volunteers from the Flint Registry drive up to a “Root beer stand-style” testing station; MSU will compare antibody status to COVID-19 exposure and vaccination rates among Flint residents using a salivary testing tool.

As the COVID-19 pandemic began, African Americans made up more than 33 percent of the state’s coronavirus cases and 40 percent of its deaths, despite being only 14 percent of Michigan’s population, according to state health data and U.S Census Bureau.

MSU researchers in the College of Human Medicine’s Division of Public Health are using a five-year, $3.8 million grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to explore the barriers for COVID-19 antibody testing and vaccinations in Flint, Michigan.

The project is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Serological Sciences Network for COVID-19 (SeroNet) initiative. The MSU team is partnering with Johns Hopkins University and Salimetrics—an international leader in salivary bioscience. The MSU-based project aims to address racial disparities in COVID-19 by identifying ways to communicate effectively about the value of antibody testing and better understand the potential role of inflammation in COVID-19.

Racial Disparities and Mistrust
“The African American community, in general, has a lot of medical mistrust,” said Monicia Summers, DPM, a researcher on the project who also works with the Flint Healthier Black Elders Community Advisory Board.

The MSU research team is led by Todd Lucas, PhD, a Flint-based C.S. Mott Endowed Professor of Public Health. The team is collecting data to understand which public health communication strategies are most effective. Collected data will also look at antibody status compared with COVID-19 exposure and vaccination rates among Flint residents.

“With COVID-19, there are a lot of unknowns,” said Leah Maschino, MSU MPH ’17, a researcher on the project. “There is vaccine hesitancy. When people participate in our study, they learn about antibody testing benefits and appropriate uses that can help them feel better about keeping protected.”

Partnering with the Community
With the help of community partners, the researchers have developed various health communication tools in this study. One of those methods is an animated, informational video that addresses the potential value of antibody testing for COVID-19. A companion survey asks participants: Did you get the COVID-19 vaccine? Did you face any barriers in getting it? Why didn’t you get the vaccine? Have you received an antibody test?

“The work is being done with the community, to make sure what we do is addressing their needs,” said Summers, noting that the animated videos were produced in partnership with Flint’s Community-Based Organization Partners (CBOP). “We went through the video, slide by slide; CBOP helped us make it relatable to the community.” The research team also partnered with Flint’s Community Ethics Review Board.

Tools and Strategy
“It all connects back to medical mistrust and the barriers to COVID-19 vaccines or antibody testing,” said Lindsey Rose, MSU MPH ’20, a researcher on the project. “Are there certain types of media messaging about COVID-19 that resonate with the community? Those kinds of messages could also be applied more broadly, across many types of healthcare.”

In Phase 1 of the project, approximately 500 participants are being recruited for the study, being done at the College of Human Medicine’s Division of Public Health’s Flint campus.

For individuals who choose to participate, saliva samples are collected to determine the presence of antibodies to SARS-CoV-2. The results, which are returned in about four weeks, will then be communicated to participants via their preferred contact method.

“We are one of the few using this salivary testing tool to check for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies,” Maschino added. “It’s less invasive, quicker, more convenient, and safer for the research team [than a blood test].”

Most important, evidence shows that saliva-based testing for antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 appears to be just as sensitive and specific as blood-based testing, according to Anurag Dawadi, MPH, a researcher who has been working on the project since its inception.

“I think we’ll get some interesting information—which we can then relate back to the community and also inform community partners of effective public health communication tools,” Maschino said. “There is a lot unknown when it comes to COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2 antibodies—whether the antibodies are from natural infection or the COVID-19 vaccine. How long do the antibodies last? Does antibody status and duration differ among participants based on socio-demographics? We’ll be looking more closely at these types of things.”

Rachael Weisbrod, an MSU Master of Public Health (MPH) student, is currently helping the team distribute surveys and collect saliva samples as part of her practicum experience. The MPH program in MSU’s Division of Public Health actively connects students to research studies led by faculty to gain valuable experience and obtain tools and techniques for employment opportunities once they graduate.

Feedback and Next Steps
“We’ve received a lot of positive feedback from participants and community partners so far,” Maschino said. “People are excited that we’re doing what we’re doing. Participants are excited to get their results. They are excited to be able to be a part of COVID-19 research.”

“The biggest excitement is in the potential,” Rose said. “There are so many possibilities that we might not even know about yet.”

This project will expand into two rural areas—Traverse City, Mich., and Fayetteville, Ark., in partnership with the University of Arkansas School of Medicine. Participants will receive SARS-CoV-2 antibody test kits in the mail to complete at home.


December 7, 2021