Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Lior Rennert has been knee-deep in researching the best ways to study the spread of the novel coronavirus in order to mitigate its reach.
Rennert, assistant professor in Clemson’s department of public health sciences and a biostatistician, is leading a significant part of the university’s response to COVID-19.
Last fall, Rennert and his team decided to look into pre-arrival testing before students came back to campus.
“We essentially developed models that showed that if you test everybody before arrival or upon arrival, you can severely limit the outbreak size and delay them as well,” says Rennert. He says that he gives Clemson credit for conducting pre-arrival testing even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had yet to explicitly recommend it.
Another aspect of planning against the coronavirus focused on what Rennert calls a new “surveillance-based informative testing” strategy — research currently under peer-review. Through random testing, the university identified hot spots in residence halls and targeted their testing resources to test these students. Such targeted tests were twice as likely to detect positive cases compared to random tests, which allowed university officials to quickly act to isolate and quarantine students and help stem the spread of the virus.
“It was really effective,” Rennert says. “It drove down prevalence by almost 40% over a two-week implementation period.”
Much of the work Rennert and his team completed involved developing models to show the impacts of strategies on campus. But besides the research behind the policies, Rennert says he is also sending out emails to student listservs to inform students to go get tested.
For high-density institutions, like universities, Rennert says that testing before arrival is important.
“Before the semester starts, you do not want to bring an outbreak to campus, because campus is a bubble,” he says.
Mandating testing is essential, he adds, since about half of the students would not get tested if not required to do so. Social distancing and mask wearing should also be mandatory.
In addition to his work with Clemson, Rennert is collaborating with Prisma Health. He and his team are working to develop models of spread in the Upstate community. For example, Prisma has acquired a few mobile units to reach at-risk communities. The models could help determine where those units need to go.
Rennert says that the health system and his team want to allocate the vaccines to where they can have “the greatest uptake.” Doing so, he says, would reduce disease spread and morbidity across South Carolina.