With COVID-19 infections disproportionately affecting inner-city Rochester communities of color, Monroe County, the city and area health care providers have cooperated to quickly offer COVID-19 testing and respiratory clinics at two sites serving low-income residents.
The clinics as well testing units will begin operations tomorrow at the Anthony L. Jordan Health Center in Rochester’s northeast and next week under the auspices of Trillium Health, which has facilities on Monroe Avenue and in the city’s Science Park off Mt. Hope Avenue. A mobile unit is also part of the mix.
Officials of the inner-city clinics as well as Monroe County Commissioner of Health Michael Mendoza M.D., Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren and Monroe County Executive Adam Bello announced the start of the new services Tuesday.
Warren praised Mendoza, UR Medicine and Rochester Regional Health, and singled out Bello as having done “a yeoman’s job” to get the effort off the ground in a matter of weeks. The mayor noted that black and brown Rochesterians, who make up 25 percent of the area’s population, have accounted for 90 percent of the region’s COVID-19 ICU cases, 60 percent of ventilator patients and 40 percent of COVID-19 deaths.
Calling the effort “a first step in the right direction,” Mendoza cautioned that while the area’s rise in COVID-19 infections is leveling off, a new surge could still come.
Across the country, many blame limited availability of reliable COVID-19 tests for much of the disease’s spread in the United States. Meanwhile, three University of Rochester Medical Center researchers are building on existing research in hopes of rapidly developing new tests for the virus.
The three URMC scientists—Martin Zand M.D, Benjamin Miller and James McGrath—say tests they are working on could be used to detect COVID-19 infections but could also pave the way to new treatments.
Zand, senior associate dean for clinical research and co-director of URMC’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute, is working to adapt a finger-stick test for influenza he previously developed as a COVID-19 detector.
The test, which is in clinical trials, can be self-administered by patients in their own homes and mailed to a laboratory for testing. If the test could also be used for the coronavirus, it would have the social-distancing advantage of not requiring patients to go to a draw station.
“We’re hoping this could make COVID-19 vaccine trials faster and more convenient and will allow us to enroll many, many more people and get more and better information,” Zand says.
A professor of dermatology and biomedical engineering, Miller’s research focuses the optical properties of nanostructured materials to make them into tiny biosensors and diagnostic tools. His lab is now developing very tiny sensor chips that use coronavirus proteins to detect the presence of COVID-19 antibodies. Two COVID-19 antibodies, immunoglobulin G and immunoglobulin M, show up in infected individuals within two days of exposure to the virus,
Unlike existing tests, which look for coronavirus RNA to directly detect the presence of COVID-19, the tests Miller hopes to develop would not require swabs. However, he concedes, the process could pose problems “because it’s very complicated and it takes time to actually run the tests.”
McGrath’s lab is investigating the use of ultrathin silicon membranes to test samples of sputum, nasal mucus, or blood. The membrane is laced with virus-sized pores coated with antibodies that would make the pores into virus-trapping sieves. The trapped COVID-19 viruses would trigger a simple fluid movement observable by the naked eye.
McGrath believes such membranes could also be useful as research tools to help investigators learn more about how the virus attacks human lungs.
“We have been talking to people in pulmonary medicine about using our membranes to learn more about the mechanism by which this virus attacks the lung and triggers a sometimes-fatal response from the immune system,” he says.
McGrath hopes that the membrane test will soon be viable.
“It will likely take more than a year to develop a vaccine, and if we move quickly but deliberately, I think the device could be ready in time to help with the current pandemic,” he says.
Based on work done in McGrath’s lab, the membrane technology is produced by SiMPore Inc., a biotech company McGrath cofounded.