Sep 25, 2020 12 min read

GMU Awarded $100,000 Grant to Pilot Return to Work Program

George Mason University Receives $100,000 GO Virginia Economic Resilience and Recovery Grant to Pilot Return to Work Program that includes COVID-19 Antibody and Diagnostic Testing to Help the Region Safely Resume Operations

Pilot initiative builds ability to deliver testing, contact tracing, and stress management protocols among health care providers, with goal of rapidly scaling to other sectors. 

The George Mason College of Health and Human Services and College of Science have been awarded a $100,000 GO Virginia Economic Resilience and Recovery Grant to establish critical infrastructure to improve COVID-19 symptom monitoring and tracking, and diagnostics and facilitate a safe return to work. The initiative will simplify workplace monitoring for symptoms and testing for the COVID-19 virus and antibodies and will improve how contacts are traced when the virus is detected. Capabilities such as effective and easy-to-scale methods for diagnostic and antibody testing and contact tracing are key to a safe return. 

The interdisciplinary project brings together epidemiologists, nurse researchers, health informatics specialists, and laboratory scientists to create a holistic return to work program that can be scaled up.  Dr. Amira Roess, an epidemiologist and professor in the Department of Global and Community Health, is leading the project, which includes integration of symptom, exposure, and behavioral data with regular testing following exposures. A former Epidemic Intelligence (EIS) Officer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Roess brings extensive experience in outbreak and emergency preparedness and response. She advises public and private organizations, including K-12 schools, judicial systems, universities, and businesses on how to safely resume operations. Roess also currently oversees several longitudinal studies to understand the emergence and transmission of MERS-CoV (with support from the National Science Foundation), COVID-19 antibody dynamics, and other emerging disease transmission studies.  

Dr. Lance Liotta, professor in the School of Systems Biology and co-director and co-founder of Mason’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine (CAPMM) is leading a team that developed a novel saliva-based antibody test, which is easier to use than other tests and has the potential for higher sensitivity and specificity than previous formats.  

The team of co-investigators includes Drs. Kathi Huddleston, Cheryl Oetjen, and Grace Lawrence from the School of Nursing, Dr. Janusz Wojtusiak from the Department of Health Administration and Policy, and Dr. Virginia Espina from CAPMM. 

 “With breakthroughs in screening, surveillance, and testing, Mason faculty are leading efforts to fight COVID-19 in the region and around the country. The research happening here helps lay the groundwork for the economic recovery of Northern Virginia and the potential for developing commercially-available tests right here in the region,” said Dr. Aurali Dade, Mason’s interim vice president for research, innovation and economic impact. 

The pilot will focus on understanding the physical and mental health impact of COVID-19 on the workforce, especially among essential, front-line workers such as those in health care, first responder roles, education, and retail. The team plans to use the results to develop tailored stress management interventions and programs to enhance safe return to work for these populations.  

The initial study population will include health care workers because they are active in COVID-19 response and thus face higher exposures than the general population. In addition, they can reliably collect their own samples, which is pivotal at this stage of research development. Each participant will be asked to complete a daily two-minute COVID-19 symptom and exposure screening form and will receive a kit consisting of nasal swabs COVID-19 diagnostic tests, bi-weekly antibody tests, and a mobile phone app for contact tracing. The methods can be rapidly scaled and integrated into other workforce sectors. 

The pilot will begin with forty graduates from Mason’s College of Health and Human Services’ School of Nursing located in Fairfax, Prince William, and surrounding counties and will increase to 80 School of Nursing graduates. Monitoring this initial group will allow researchers to refine the testing kits and how the results are interpreted. At the completion of the pilot, researchers seek to extend the testing and tracking protocol to additional sectors of the economy to further support a safe return for the region. 

Leaders at the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority and Prince William Department of Economic Development voiced their support for the pilot initiative and the impact a widely available, non-invasive antibody test coupled with enhanced diagnostic testing can have on the region’s ability to resume key operations. Bringing a COVID-19 testing protocol to market in Northern Virginia could also have longer-term benefits to the region and its growing life sciences and information technology sectors. 

 “This is an important effort to understand more about COVID-19 and its effects on the population, and I am delighted to see it moving forward,” said Victor Hoskins, president and CEO of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority. “This effort also is the latest example of innovators in the Northern Virginia technology community collaborating to improve people’s lives, and we should be proud that this kind of discovery happens here.” 

"I'm so proud to call Mason one of Prince William County's own and I'm excited to see this study move forward," said Christina M. Winn, executive director of the Prince William County Department of Economic Development. "It's such an important step in building confidence in our community and preparing our region for safely getting back to work." 

The GO VA Economic Resilience and Recovery Grant Program was created by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) Growth and Opportunity for Virginia Board. George Mason University matched the grant with $50,000 in funding. "In creating the Economic Resilience and Recovery program, the GO Virginia State Board pivoted resources to focus on near term strategies to mitigate the economic impacts of the pandemic and this project is a perfect example of an innovative regional solution.  This collaborative project leverages unique assets in Northern Virginia and we look forward to seeing the results of this pilot and its potential to inform reopening strategies," said Sara Dunnigan, deputy director, GO Virginia and Economic Development at DHCD. 

About the College of Health and Human Services
George Mason University's College of Health and Human Services prepares students to become leaders and shape the public's health through academic excellence, research of consequence, community outreach, and interprofessional clinical practice. George Mason is the fastest-growing Research I institution in the country. The College enrolls 2,260 undergraduate and 1,645 graduate students in its nationally-recognized offerings, including: 5 undergraduate degrees, 13 graduate degrees, and 7 certificate programs. The College is transitioning to a college public health in the near future.  For more information, visit https://chhs.gmu.edu/.

About the College of Science
The College of Science at George Mason University is a leader in scientific discovery creating innovative solutions for the rapidly-changing needs of today's world. Mason's College of Science blends traditional science education for more than 4,000 students with sought-after programs in disciplines as diverse as personalized medicine, infectious diseases, geoinformatics, climate dynamics, materials science, astronomy, forensic science, and applied mathematics. The College encourages meaningful education and research at all levels offering 95 innovative undergraduate programs, minors, certificates, and graduate degree opportunities, as well as global, transfer-focused, and online, or hybrid, programs that allow professionals the opportunity to reskill or change careers. Learn more at science.gmu.edu

For more information contact: 

Michelle Thompson 
Director of Marketing and Communications 
George Mason College of Health and Human Services 
Mthomp7@gmu.edu 
703-993-3485