Tens of thousands of students are scheduled to return to Penn State’s main campus in central Pennsylvania next month, swelling its host county’s population by more than a third. And during a historic public health crisis, that’s a research opportunity.

Students will come from many states experiencing varying levels of the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps even from other countries depending on travel restrictions. How will that affect the virus’ spread? Will it change perceptions of risk among Centre County residents? And what about the economic impact of the students who do or don’t come?

A Penn State team has begun collecting baseline data for a research project that will track those elements and more. The project will allow the university to study itself and its wider community, with the hope of gathering information that will help inform decisions during this and future pandemics. As part of it, Penn State plans to begin testing local residents for antibodies to the virus by Aug. 1.

“Many of us spend our research careers thinking about problems away from campus,” said Matthew Ferrari, an associate professor and infectious-disease expert. “Now is the time when we really are all uniquely focused on the needs of our neighbors and community.”

And what they learn could be important to university communities throughout the country.

The effort, co-led by Ferrari, is one of more than 150 coronavirus-related research projects going on at Pennsylvania’s flagship state university, which enrolls more than 96,000 students — about 47,000 of them at the University Park campus.

One team is studying whether nose and mouth washes can help reduce virus transmission. Another is looking at developing an intranasal vaccine. Others are exploring antiviral treatments. Another is looking at the impact of COVID-19 infection on babies during pregnancy.

Some are doing work in a containment lab where live virus is stored and tested. It takes up to 45 minutes just to prepare to enter the lab, and researchers must take extensive training and undergo an FBI background check before they can work there.

Other research will focus on behavioral and social aspects, such as how empathy may drive choices around social distancing and how the economic impact on restaurants and the food chain might be minimized.

Penn State was one of the first universities in the country in March to solicit coronavirus project proposals from its faculty and offer seed grants to encourage interdisciplinary research. Many colleges throughout the region are engaged in coronavirus-related research. Penn State offers a window into such work.

“When something like this happens, it allows all of your people to rapidly pivot and take all of their experience that relates to a discipline and apply it to this new question,” said Elizabeth McGraw, a professor of entomology and director of Penn State’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics.

Elizabeth McGraw, a professor of entomology and director of Penn State's Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics
Courtesy of Elizabeth McGraw
Elizabeth McGraw, a professor of entomology and director of Penn State's Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics

Penn State researchers were watching from the outbreak’s earliest days. By February, they were strategizing a massive effort, said Andrew Read, director of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, which spearheaded the grant program.

“We’ve always wondered if a pandemic were coming, what would be the steps? How could we move on it?” said Read, an infectious-disease expert.

In early March, the university put out the call for projects, looking for ones that could have an impact quickly and needed money to get started. Forty-eight projects involving more than 130 faculty members were selected to share $2.4 million in grants. Several of the projects have since attracted outside funding, too, from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, McGraw said.

“We discovered overwhelming interest from researchers across the university and across the spectrum of disciplines, all wanting to try in their own way to produce solutions,” McGraw said.

Researchers have been rotating into labs to allow for social distancing, McGraw said, while some work from home. The projects are expected to yield at least preliminary results over the next six months to a year.

Some larger projects, such as Ferrari’s, could go on for years. His was among 100 or so projects that are proceeding outside of the university grant program. Researchers working with him conducted an anonymous survey of Centre County residents this spring. Almost 6,000 of the approximately 115,000 residents (not including students) responded, Ferrari said. They were asked about 20 questions, such as whether they had been sick or knew someone who was, and if they lost their job. About 1,700 have agreed to participate in future studies aimed at measuring the health, economic, educational, and social impacts of the coronavirus for at least the next two years.

Researchers plan to test participants for antibodies to the virus over time, he said, and to look for differences among groups, such as those who work on campus compared with those who don’t. The goal is to begin the antibody testing by Aug. 1, Ferrari said.

Students and residents will both be surveyed to track changes in perceptions and experiences, Ferrari said.

The team enlisted the support of borough and county officials and tapped experts on staff, including Nita Bharti, an interdisciplinary scientist who studies how large-scale movement affects disease transmission.

Matthew Ferrari, an associate professor and infectious disease expert at Pennsylvania State University
Courtesy of Penn State
Matthew Ferrari, an associate professor and infectious disease expert at Pennsylvania State University

“This is an opportunity for local communities to have conversations about how they want their communities to go onward during this difficult time,” said Michael Pipe, chair of the Centre County Board of Commissioners and a 2009 Penn State graduate.

There may be no other community in Pennsylvania, he said, where the population is as greatly affected by the reopening of a university than Centre County. Residents are concerned about a potential increase in cases when students return, given the high level of interaction with the community, he said. Penn State largely shut down its campus and sent students home in March, and Centre County has had fewer than 300 confirmed coronavirus cases.

At a State College borough council meeting this week, several council members voiced concern about the health impact of students’ return, including the move-in process.

“We’re going to have 40,000 kids suddenly descending on the town, and as far as I know, the university has not laid out any really cogent plan for how we’re going to deal with it,” council member Janet Engeman said.

Another member, Theresa Lafer, said it takes only a few virus carriers moving into each apartment building to cause major problems.

“I see this as the beginning of a pandemic in more than one building,” she said.

Penn State for months has been planning for students’ return, and next week will offer more details on that planning, including testing, a university spokesperson said. The university also has said it is prepared to pivot and move all instruction online if problems occur. Local officials had questions about that, too.

“When is it going to be bad enough to pivot?” council member Peter Marshall asked.

But residents, Pipe said, also see another side to the students’ return. They understand the economic impact it could have on the community’s long-term viability if students don’t return.

“It’s about balancing those two things, I believe,” he said.