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URMC / Clinical & Translational Science Institute / Stories / July 2023 / Protecting the Vulnerable, Informing the Future

Protecting the Vulnerable, Informing the Future

How the UR CTSI helped keep kids with severe and complex disabilities safe and in school

Martin Zand, MD, PhD (left) and Christopher Seplaki, PhD, (right) look over a notebook in Zand's UR CTSI office

Martin Zand, MD, PhD, (left) and Christopher Seplaki, PhD, (right) pore over notes for the RADx-UP study.

In the early days of the COVID pandemic, a group of scientists and school leaders formed a unique team that navigated the pandemic in real-time to keep some of the most vulnerable kids—and the staff who work with them—safe and in school. This team, which included members of the UR CTSI, University of Rochester Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center (IDDRC), and the Mary Cariola Center, took on the $4 million project to understand how COVID was spreading among people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a non-vaccinated person with IDD is four times more likely to contract COVID and eight times more likely to die from the virus than someone without an IDD. While this population was at greater risk from the virus, many also couldn’t afford to miss being in school, where they receive crucial support services.

With funding from the NIH Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics-Underserved Populations (RADx-UP) program, this team provided COVID testing onsite at Mary Cariola, as well as mobile testing—and immediately began to catch positive cases. Vaccinations were not given or required in this research project, but antibody levels—from vaccinations and illness—were collected and considered as the school reacted to an ever-changing environment.

“We could see how the immunity progressed and changed in both vaccinated and unvaccinated people within the study,” said UR CTSI Co-Director Martin Zand, MD, PhD, who was a co-principal investigator of the RADx-UP project. “Because of this, we know we achieved herd immunity at the school.”

Zand led antibody sample collection and analysis for the project, leveraging the UR CTSI’s Informatics team’s expertise, personnel, and data management infrastructure. With these data, COVID tests, and other information specific to the school, Zand and Christopher Seplaki, PhD, associate professor of Public Health Sciences, created hundreds of models to understand how an airborne virus could travel through buildings, hallways, and classrooms.

That information helped inform school policies and practices to reduce the risk of airborne transmission—and could change how organizations respond to airborne viruses in settings that support the IDD community in the future.

Read the full story in the Neuroscience Newsletter.


In addition to Zand’s leadership, several UR CTSI-affiliated faculty and staff contributed to the RADx-UP project. Ann Dozier, PhD, professor and chair of Public Health Sciences and function leader of Metrics and Evaluation for the UR CTSI, was a co-investigator and community engagement lead on the project. Dongmei Li, PhD, professor of Clinical and Translational Science in the UR CTSI, provided statistical support for the project, including systems modeling and manuscript preparation.  Anthony Corbett, MS, implemented the comprehensive data management required for this complex study. Laura Sugarwala, MBA, RD, led a UR CTSI community studio that helped the research team understand the unique barriers and challenges to participating in the study that children with complex medical issues face.

Michael Hazard | 7/25/2023

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