OMAHA — A key question left hanging since COVID-19 vaccinations began: Can people who have gotten the shots still get infected and spread the virus to others?
The University of Nebraska Medical Center and Children’s Hospital & Medical Center are part of a national trial aimed at answering that question. Those leading the trial intend to vaccinate college students at more than 20 universities across the U.S. and monitor them and their close contacts.
Locally, the trial will be open to undergraduate students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said Dr. Jasmine Marcelin, an assistant professor at UNMC and an infectious diseases physician with Nebraska Medicine.
Marcelin is one of the co-principal investigators leading the $90 million nationwide study, launched by the COVID-19 Prevention Network and funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Marcelin said researchers know the vaccines work to prevent severe disease and death. But the vaccine trials performed so far were not designed to determine whether they prevent transmission by people who later get infected but have no symptoms. The answer to that question is important in determining next steps in navigating the pandemic.
“The question that’s really going to help us get to ... ditching the masks and feeling safe in group settings is whether we can still transmit COVID,” she said. “That’s the point of the study.”
Researchers hope to enroll 12,000 students ages 18 to 26 in the five-month study, called Prevent COVID U. The University of Colorado at Boulder began vaccinating its first participants last week.
Local researchers have not yet begun enrolling students, but UNO students who are interested in participating should watch their emails for more information. The COVID-19 Prevention Network is headquartered at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
Half of the students will be randomly selected to receive the vaccine — in this case, Moderna — right after they enroll in the trial. The other half will get it four months later. All participants will know which part of the trial they are in when they enroll and all eventually will get the vaccine.
Marcelin said the ideal participants may be students who are interested in getting the vaccine but have no preference about when they receive it. And while the study offers an opportunity for young adults to get the vaccine, they shouldn’t sign up as a way to get the vaccine early.
Nebraska health departments have the option of opening vaccination to those 16 and older beginning Monday, although those decisions will depend on local availability of vaccine and appointments.
“It really has to do with their desire to participate in the scientific effort but not necessarily (their) need to get the vaccine immediately,” Marcelin said.
Volunteers will be asked to swab their noses daily for COVID infection, complete questionnaires in a diary app and provide periodic blood samples.
The swabs, Marcelin said, are nasal swabs with a shallower reach than the nasopharyngeal swabs used in testing centers. The test, however, is the same one used to analyze samples collected at those centers.
The researchers are focusing on college students because large numbers of infections have been reported on college campuses across the country, often associated with high-density housing. A New York Times survey found that more than 397,000 infections had been counted by December at more than 1,800 universities after they reopened last fall.
Dr. Russell McCulloh, chief of the pediatric hospital medical division for UNMC and Children’s, said the fact that young adults often don’t have symptoms of COVID-19 make them a higher risk for transmitting the virus without knowing they have it. McCulloh will lead the local part of the study.
Because the study is intended to test the vaccine’s effectiveness in reducing or preventing spread, the researchers also will invite about 25,000 people identified by participants as “close contacts” to take part in the trial. Those who sign up will be asked to answer weekly questions using the diary app, provide two blood samples and take daily swabs of their noses for two weeks.
Marcelin said a lot of people have been anxious about spreading the virus to the people they love, particularly those who may be at high risk or may not have been able to get the vaccine yet.
“This will help answer questions about whether the vaccines will (not only) protect us but will protect others as well,” she said.
THE SCENE IN LINCOLN DURING THE PANDEMIC
Photos: The scene in Lincoln with much of city shut down
City Council distancing
Gameday empty Saturday
Thank you Bryan West
No fans allowed
Volleyball social distancing
Boo at the Zoo
Downtown mask art
Marching band competition
East Campus proposed budget cuts
No Football Saturday
UNL in-person class
Farmers Market influencers
Weeping Water vs. Fillmore Central/Exeter-Milligan
First day of middle school
First day of school
Pius X volleyball practice
City Council BLM protest
Rally and hearing
Lancaster County Super Fair
LPS board meeting
Meatpacking workers rally
Lincoln Northeast graduation
Gov. Ricketts address Legislature
Masked Archie the Mammoth
First Jury Trial in Four Months
Lincoln Community Playhouse
The Kindler Hotel
Garth Brooks Drive-In Concert
Urban Air Adventure Park
Gere Branch Library
Music on the Move
Bars Opening in Lincoln
LPS Teachers Retirement
Holmes Lake Manor Horse Visit
Lancaster County Courthouse
Church Social Distancing
Children of Smithfield
Parkview Christian Teacher Appreciation Day
Lincoln Christian 2020 Seniors
Test Nebraska site
Drive-Thru Career Fair
Center for People in Need food distribution
Masks For Truckers
Teacher and Staff Parade
Virtual City Council
Good Friday Music
Masks on a walk
Watch: A timelapse of the mural at Saro Cider
Watch: Hand sanitizer rolls off Innovation Campus assembly line
No fun here
Tower Square sign
WATCH: Celebrating a birthday with a parade
Simpsons in the windows
Drive-thru COVID-19 testing
UNL Beekeeping virtual class
Lincoln Lutheran Online Teaching
Blue for public health
Basketball without fans
Thanksgiving to go
Socially distant Santa
Christmas tree demand
Basketball fans reduced
Mike Hilgers at Legislature's First Day
Zoo Bar membership
New high school
Biking in snow