Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Local Covid-19 research awarded $40,000 in Puerto Rico Public Health Trust grants

By on June 5, 2020

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Winning projects look into contact tracing, telemedicine, food access for diabetes patients, social distancing during pandemic crisis

SAN JUAN – The Puerto Rico Public Health Trust (PRPHT) announced Friday the awarding of $40,000 in grants to four public health research projects that aim to control the local spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19.

The research projects, which were awarded $10,000 each, cover the areas of contact tracing, telemedicine, health access and food safety for adults with diabetes, and intermittent social distance to control the novel coronavirus epidemic on the island.

“Our interest is to support our researchers so that with their projects they can contribute to the public health of the communities of Puerto Rico by providing solutions and economic development,” Dr. Marcos López, research manager of the PRPHT, said in a statement. “It is clear that since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been precisely the scientists who have presented feasible alternatives to prevent the spread of the virus.”

The winning proposals were selected after being evaluated by a group of mentors who had the responsibility of considering the impact of the research presented, the implementation process, the economic scope and the feasibility of execution, López said. The criteria for selection includes “the development of an innovative product or service that could help maximize and optimize resources for public health and/or telehealth in Puerto Rico,” and “research that integrates and studies social and economic factors to generate a positive impact on the public health in Puerto Rican communities,” he said.

“It is hoped that this input will help researchers secure funding to complete ongoing projects, obtain data, present evidence-based conclusions and publish their findings,” López said.

PRPHT Executive Director Dr. José Rodríguez Orengo said that the trust, a component of the Puerto Rico Science, Technology and Research Trust (PRSTRT), will “soon” announce a request for proposals for a second round of research grants.

“We know that as with these projects there are many others that can be developed and deserve to be sponsored,” he said in a statement, calling on local public health researchers to “be alert” to the grant announcement on the trust’s web page ( ). “We are committed to providing opportunities that will improve health equity in Puerto Rico.”

PRPHT has been providing municipalities that have started Covid-19 contact tracing programs with expert scientific and technological assistance to establish an effective disease tracing and surveillance system. PRSTRT has assigned the trust with a $500,000 budget for the next three years, Rodríguez recently told Caribbean Business.

The following are the four research projects recommended for PRPHT funding with a brief description:

  • Research topic: “Intermittent Social Distancing to Control the Covid-19 Pandemic in Puerto Rico: Role Of Outdoor Pollen And Mold Seasons”

Principal Researcher: Benjamín Bolaños Rosero, Ph.D.

Institution: University of Puerto Rico, Medical Sciences campus

In his justification for the project, Bolaños states that “it is urgent to understand the future of severe acute respiratory syndrome-coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) transmission,” given that there is “wide speculation of whether the COVID-19 outbreak is seasonal.” He said that previous research has projected that recurrent wintertime outbreaks of SARSCoV- 2 will probably occur after the initial pandemic wave. Given the absence of a vaccine and specific treatment, he says that “a key metric for the success of social distancing is whether critical care capacities are exceeded,” noting that to avoid this, “prolonged or intermittent social distancing may be necessary” into 2022.

Bolaños proposes to examine these interactions to determine if “the outdoor allergens seasons will lead to higher or lower COVID-19 cases, or exacerbated health effects.” His hypothesis is that seasonal outdoor aeroallergens, may trigger an inflammatory response in the lungs that may increase the susceptibility to respiratory viral infections.

  • Research topic: “Food Access and Security, Healthcare, and Glycemic Control Among Adults with Diabetes During the Covid-19 Pandemic”

Principal Researcher: Josiemer Mattei, Ph.D.

Institution: FDI Clinical Research of Puerto Rico,

Mattei states in her project justification that people with type 2 diabetes (T2D) are at higher risk of Covid-19 severity and mortality, noting that they require “specialized behavioral and clinical management” to avoid numerous complications. The strict Covid19 containment efforts in Puerto Rico may have detrimental implications in the ability of T2D patients to secure sufficient food that address their metabolic needs, she hypothesizes, proposing to investigate food insecurity among these patients, including access to foods and healthcare services, and glycemic control during the Covid-19 crisis, and “examine any potential changes in these factors before and during the pandemic, and deeply understand these experiences in individuals with T2D” on the island.

  • Research topic: “Family Auto-Contact Tracing (Fact) of SARS-COV-2 in Puerto Rico”

Principal Researcher: Robinson Rodríguez-Pérez, Ph.D.

Institution: University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez

Rodríguez-Pérez proposes to look into the proposed Family Auto-Contact Tracing (FACT) of SARS-CoV-2 as an approach to facilitate the task of contact tracing by epidemiologists and public health officials with “a family-based initiative focused on community public health.”

“The lack of enough testing in combination with the slow and delayed start of contact tracing in Puerto Rico risks that the gains of the early strict lockdown could be lost,” he states in his justification. “The main objective of the FACT approach is to enable each home to privately record the hour and location in which members of that family visit and also the time and name of people that visit the household.”

  • Research topic: “Integration of Telemedicine in Public Health Activities to Promote Covid-19 Pre-diagnostic In Puerto Rico”

Principal Researcher: Melissa Marzán-Rodríguez, MPH, Ph.D.

Institution: Ponce Health Science University

In her project, Marzán-Rodríguez examines the use and effectiveness of telemedicine in the mitigation of the “exponential impact,” at the community level, of Covid-19 in Puerto Rico.

“Considering the multiples challenges to provide prevention efforts in the context of social and physical distancing measures, comprehensive approaches can provide an alternative for promoting and preventing COVID-19,” she states. “The main goal of this project is to support an integrative telephone-based platform to provide medical, psychological, and public health services to the communities of Puerto Rico through a call center platform.”

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