UVM Medical Center Main Campus, Burlington, Wikimedia

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BURLINGTON — The University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) announced Thursday the first results of a recent serosurvey that aimed at finding what percentage of students and school employees were carrying COVID-19 antibodies.

A total of 622 members of the Colchester School District (CSD) volunteered and enrolled in the study. The participation rate of students was slightly less than 20%. And 532 of the participants — 336 students and 196 teachers or staff — had their measurements successfully taken for use.

Blood samples were collected in the first half of December, before vaccines started being administered in Vermont, with a follow-up collection being planned for the end of the school year for comparison.

The study found that students were marginally less likely to have been infected at some point compared to teachers and staff. It also indicated that students in grades Pre-K through fifth grade were substantially less likely to have been infected at some point compared to students in grades 6-12.

Dr. Benjamin Lee, an infectious disease expert at UVMMC Children’s Hospital, and Dr. Sean Bullis, a UVM Medical Center infectious diseases fellow, conducted the survey. They were mainly looking to see the prevalence of antibodies in children as kids often have no symptoms and may have been infected at some point without anyone knowing.

A release from UVMMC about the results said, “Knowing the rate of infections in children could be an important piece of data to aid public policy, particularly regarding school attendance.”

The release said that the participants who were seropositive for COVID-19 antibodies did not report any close contacts with others who contracted the virus, suggesting that none of them ever transmitted it to a close contact.

Dr. Lee says that the initial survey results are consistent with other estimates of seroprevalence in the state. He also said that the results further support the notion that infection rates in school communities reflect their surrounding communities and that school attendance or employment does not appear to be associated with higher infection rates.

According to Lee, the data provides further evidence that young school-aged children — those in grades Pre-K through 5, appear to be at the lowest risk of infection. He said that with proper mitigation, schools can operate safely during the COVID-19 pandemic, even in the absence of wide-scale vaccination.

The survey found the following prevalence of antibodies from the successfully taken samples:

Overall: 4.7%

  • Students: 4.6%
  • Teachers/staff: 4.9%

Student breakdown:

  • Grades Pre-K-5: 1.8%
  • Grades 6-12: 6.9%

Lee and Bullis proposed the idea of using the CSD community to the Colchester School Board during a Sept. 1 meeting. Lee said he would ideally like to include children and adults from schools across Chittenden County, but resources — including research personnel — led to the study needing to be more limited.

Lee claimed that CSD, a district he classified as “medium sized” compared to others in the region, was the “right fit in many ways.” He added, “I think the size is attractive. It’s manageable, and it would probably give us the power that we would need.”

Bullis said at that meeting that the team’s initial plan was to conduct three rounds of testing: one early in the fall, the second eight weeks later, and the third at the end of the school year.

Online consent forms needed to be completed for someone to register as a participant, and students in grades 6-12 needed to provide consent in addition to that of a parent or guardian. Funding for the study was provided by the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Fund.

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