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A group of gay men helped the CDC spot a COVID outbreak: 'Community plus public health is magic'

Citizen scientist Michael Donnelly conducted a contact tracing project among members of the gay community to identify early positive cases of the Coronavirus delta variant.

A group of gay men helped the CDC spot a COVID outbreak: 'Community plus public health is magic'
Image Source: donnellymjd / Twitter

In Provincetown, Massachusetts, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were able to spot a COVID outbreak in "warp speed," faster than in other communities. This is primarily thanks to members of the LGBTQ+ community, who helped the CDC identify breakthrough cases. Citizen scientist Michael Donnelly led the study, calling on gay men to share their experiences as they felt symptoms of the Coronavirus come on after the celebrations on Fourth of July weekend. This meant the CDC was able to quickly learn new information about the delta variant. This contact tracing project highlighted the importance of the LGBTQ+ community in ensuring public health and "is a testament to the power of citizens engaging with the scientific process," NPR reports.


Every year, Donnelly heads to Provincetown with his husband for July Fourth. However, owing to the pandemic, the couple decided to stay at home this year. Unlike the scientist and his partner, thousands of gay folks traveled to this little artist community on the tip of Cape Cod where they rented cottages; went to the beach, drag shows, and restaurants; and danced in crowded nightclubs. When the weekend's festivities ended, Donnelly's phone blew up with updates and gossip about cases of Coronavirus.


When he asked his friends if the survived "the Fourth in P-town," they responded, "Our entire house can't stop coughing." He received dozens of text messages, even from friends who were fully vaccinated but still testing positive for the illness. Given that vaccination rates were particularly high among the gay community and in Provincetown, Donnelly believed the odds did not really add up. Furthermore, with lockdowns keeping friends away from each other for so long, there was added excitement. Zorik Pesochinsky, who traveled to Provincetown from New York City, stated, "The lines were even longer—the bars were even busier and more full." Evidently, folks were flouting social distancing measures.


Therefore, Donnelly turned on statistician mode in order to understand what was going on. "That's what's always drawing me to numbers and math and forecasting and data science," he shared. "It gives me some better idea of the things that I understand and the things that I can control and the things that I can't." While he was aware that no vaccination was 100 percent effective, the numbers he was hearing off-hand exceeded what he have expected the breakthrough rate to be. The data scientist began calling members in his network, collecting information on 51 cases, including COVID-19 and vaccination statuses, symptoms, home city, phone number, whether they were in a house with other breakthrough cases, and more.


He shared, "The norms of the gay community say: Share your medical history, share your risks with other people so that they can be responsible and take care of themselves as well. That came with years of practice within the community, particularly around HIV and AIDS." This is quite different to the general population, among whom contact tracing has proven difficult in the United States. According to one CDC report, two-thirds of people interviewed did not provide any contacts to a contact tracer. Finally, after three days of compiling this information together, Donnelly got public health professionals involved. He contacted Demetre Daskalakis, a deputy incident manager for the CDC's COVID-19 Response he had known from the year prior.


The CDC was then able to expand his study, ultimately identifying 469 positive cases. Daskalakis affirmed, "It's quite certain that if we didn't have the heads-up from Michael—because of what he was seeing among his friends with his statistician hat on—we wouldn't have heard about it as rapidly." As per the manager, the project was "an awesome public health moment." He stated, " It's a community that believes in science and public health stepping up to the plate. I get goose bumps thinking about it. Community plus public health is magic."


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