The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionally affected vulnerable populations in New Mexico – and miners are among the most affected.
Akshay Sood, MD, a professor in The University of New Mexico Department of Internal Medicine, has been funded by the National Institutes of Health RADx-UP program to research COVID-19 prevention and management in New Mexico miners. The $1.7 million grant is the only one of its kind in the state.
Sood, who also holds the Miners’ Colfax Medical Center Endowed Chair in Mining-Related Lung Diseases, explains that miners are constantly exposed to air pollution from the particulates in the dust they inhale.
“There is an epidemic of dust-related lung diseases, such as black lung, in the United States, and we are at the forefront of fighting that epidemic,” Sood says, adding that the term “twindemic,” originally coined to describe the simultaneous occurrence of COVID-19 and the flu, can also be applied to the merging of the black lung epidemic and COVID-19.
“There is also evidence of communities that live with high-particulate air pollution being at risk of dying from COVID-19,” Sood says.
In addition to workplace conditions, the nature of the work also makes miners particularly susceptible to COVID-19. “Unlike us, who can have flexible work schedules, telecommute and maintain safe distances according to guidelines, miners cannot do any of the above,” Sood says. “These three principal guidelines that all of us follow, do not apply to miners.”
Mining has been deemed an essential industry for New Mexico’s economy, he says. “If these mines shut down, the energy security of our country gets hampered.” Sood and his team were not only interested in studying an essential workplace, but also wanted to focus the study on a rural workplace.
“Miners are a disadvantaged, predominately minority and rural population that are fairly unique and are at risk of developing COVID-19 and having complications related to COVID-19,” Sood says.
About two-thirds of the miner population are either Hispanic or American Indian, and tend to be men, both of which are considered high-risk groups, Sood says. “Some New Mexico data is suggesting that viral loads are higher in the American Indian populations, and those populations also tend to be more symptomatic,” he says.
Another problem arising with the COVID-19 pandemic is the development of asymptomatic cases. “We need to be able to screen both symptomatic and asymptomatic cases,” Sood says.
The study will use simple, state-of-the-art surveillance tests without relying on the standard RT-PCR tests that are used in hospitals. The surveillance tool, also called an index test, is antigen-based, and will only take 15 minutes to complete. It will be considered a point-of-care test, meaning that it will be completed at or near the collection site.
“Our approach is to do frequent testing at every alternate work shift, and we are going to ask that people do their own swabs of their noses,” Sood explains.
The initial study will compare the ability of the two tests to detect the presence of COVID-19 from nasopharyngeal swabs. “Not only [will the study] allow us to generate useful research data, but also offer tools that are not existing anywhere in the country on a commercial basis,” Sood says.
Sood and his multi-disciplinary team, which includes community miners and mining officers, are excited to start the project.
“This research really fits into the long-term commitment that the University of New Mexico has to disadvantaged, predominantly racial/ethnic minority miners of New Mexico,” he says. “It’s another piece of our long-term story.”