MGH Researcher Finds Interesting Results Here

Even before Dr. John Iafrate came out to Chelsea, he knew it was the place he would find the best research and the most people who had been infected.

What he found in Bellingham Square on April 14 and 15 has stoked a lot of hope in City officials and the medical community about how to help Chelsea move forward through its tremendous infection rate, and potentially how to lead the rest of the state out of the woods as well.

“We knew we had a lot of patients in MGH and in the ICU there from Chelsea, even before it was publicized so much,” he said. “So that’s how we started this project. It became clear about three weeks ago there were really high numbers of individuals from the Chelsea community. We needed some clarity and we needed to get folks out there and get more information on the ground.”

That resulted in Dr. Iafrate, a physician at MGH who doubles as a researcher, setting up in Bellingham Square and asking for 200 volunteers to help research COVID-19. They were using a brand new blood, anti-body test that simply pricks the finger for a small blood sample – much like a diabetes sugar test. The test, from North Carolina’s BioMedomics company, is an affordable $10 per test and allows researchers to get results in 10 minutes. It was the best blood test that MGH had encountered after testing about 10 new products on the market.

And so they sent Iafrate out to the streets to use it.

They already knew about 2 percent of the population in Chelsea had tested positive for COVID-19, which is a very high number, but they had also heard of a lot of people here with mild symptoms. The question for him was how many people were out there sick, infectious and didn’t know it.

“We knew that 2 percent of the Chelsea population had tested positive and that’s a high number and it begs the question – how many people had it and didn’t know or had mild symptoms and weren’t part of the official number.”

The answer was quite a few – a whopping 32 percent of the 200 volunteers walking, shopping and moving through Bellingham Square a week ago either had the virus or had the virus previously.

“We knew going in it was going to be high,” he said. “The number of 32 percent for people walking down the street in Bellingham Square on a Tuesday and Wednesday was surprisingly high. That’ meant 32 percent of the people at large had been infected.”

To make things more interesting, of the 200 volunteers there were 100 who reported they had felt no symptoms in the past month – so exactly 50 percent.

“Of that group of 100 people with no reported symptoms in a month, we found 20 percent had been infected,” he said. “They had no idea they had had the virus.”

The blood test has its limits. It can only tell if someone has been infected more than 21 days ago, or less than 21 days ago. Unlike the swab tests, it cannot tell if you have a positive result at the moment, and if you are contagious. That still has to be done with the swab, quick test (known as a PCR). However, there are extreme shortages for those tests and for swabs, and it isn’t suggested that everyone be tested. Yet, there is a problem with the fact that so many people are walking around who have COVID-19 and don’t know they have it. They can spread it without having any symptoms or only very mild symptoms.

“The blood test is not as powerful as a PCR

Iafrate said if his blood test can be used more thoroughly in the greater population, it can be a gateway for finding people who need to be PCR tested and who need to isolate and quarantine. Those who test negative with his test could be allowed to go about their business.

It could be the way back to opening the city and potentially the state and nation.

“If we can roll out the test and use Chelsea as the test over the next two weeks, we should see the 32 percent go up 40 percent or 50 percent,” he said. “We need additional data points…COVID-19 behavior in Chelsea is going to be very different than in a rural community not as dense. As a state, each city and town will have its own behavior. It will depend on the density of the community and socio-economic issues that require people to have to go to work…If we can start in Chelsea and get two or three communities of different types, we hope to create a model statewide.”

For now, Iafrate said they will focus on Chelsea and try to help Chelsea. They plan to continue doing studies for the next three weeks in order to help bring down the infection rate here.

“The main reason here is to help the community in Chelsea,” he said. “It’s not to do science or publish academic papers, but to help understand the virus and get more resources to Chelsea and try to help the people there.”

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