Chicago Coronavirus Assessment Network (Chicago CAN)

A funding opportunity to respond to the Chicago region’s COVID-19 public health needs

The Walder Foundation is launching the Chicago Coronavirus Assessment Network (Chicago CAN) to address the COVID-19 crisis. Through a request for proposals (RFP), Chicago CAN will bring together the expertise and capabilities of the Chicago area’s scientific and medical research community together with public health leadership to generate COVID-19 data and insights to better understand the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and inform public health policy.

About the Walder Foundation

The Walder Foundation was established by Joseph and Elizabeth Walder to address critical issues impacting our world. The Foundation’s five areas of focus—science innovation, environmental sustainability, the performing arts, migration and immigrant communities, and Jewish life—are an extension of the Walders’ lifelong passions, interests, and their personal and professional experiences.

Our support of the science research community in Chicago will focus on building an innovative, collaborative research platform that will elevate our region’s scientific contributions to the world.

The Problem

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was not detected in time to prevent localized outbreaks from exploding into the devastating health, economic, and social impacts that we are experiencing today. Current public health surveillance systems rely on symptomatic patients presenting to outpatient or hospital settings. It took six weeks to detect the first case of cryptic community spread in the United States. And then it was only detected when the Seattle Flu Study decided to test their research samples, which led them to a local teenager infected with COVID-19. The teen had no record of travel or contact with a known COVID-19 case.

Lacking effective therapeutics or vaccines for this disease, enhanced syndromic and virus surveillance is necessary to monitor and track COVID-19 transmission, predict outbreaks, and understand community spread so that we might safely reopen our communities and prevent this from happening again.

The Chicago CAN Initiative

We are committed to helping the Illinois, Chicago, and Cook County Public Health Departments better understand the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus for the benefit of all. The resulting research, data, and knowledge generated through Chicago CAN should directly support public health, evidence-based decision making, and the COVID-19 response. We are seeking proposals for surveillance activities and investigations (non-research and research), performed for and/or with public health departments, which include strategic testing to inform the safe reopening of our communities, get ahead of future outbreaks, and minimize additional impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Building toward the future—a “national epidemic immune system”

The Global Virome Project estimates there are over 500,000 unknown viruses circulating in wildlife that are capable of being transmitted to people. With the increased threat of novel virus outbreaks, Chicago CAN will also lay the groundwork for the future development of a dual-purpose, viral research and public health platform. This “early warning system“ would couple ongoing research samples with a “break-the-glass“ protocol, so that when a novel virus emerges (anywhere in the world), this ready-to-activate, local scanning platform could immediately test the samples in hand. This would determine if the virus is already circulating in the community. The early warning signal to public health would then activate tracking and containment protocols, preventing an outbreak from turning into a pandemic. In short, connecting a network of city or regional ready-to-activate research nodes with public health could create a national epidemic immune system, plugging the surveillance gap that allowed SARS-CoV-2 to circulate in our communities under the radar and become a pandemic.

The Chicago CAN Challenge: Addressing the Current COVID-19 Crisis

The goals of Chicago CAN are twofold: First, to address key public health questions related to the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the greater Chicago region to provide actionable data for public health decision making during the COVID-19 pandemic, and second, to lay the groundwork for the potential development of a dual-purpose viral research and public health early warning platform that would rely on ongoing research, including the collection of community samples.

Grant Awards

The Walder Foundation invites proposals to address any of the focus areas outlined below for up to $500,000 in funding per proposal. The Walder Foundation strongly encourages cross-institutional collaboration and will consider proposals up to $1.25 million that include a collaboration between two or more institutions based in the greater Chicago region.

To address near-term COVID-19 needs, the project scope should be designed for up to one year. Within the stated budget caps, proposals requesting a two-year term may be considered with sufficient rationale and public-health benefit. Budgets and scope may be negotiated with selected applicants as part of the review process to ensure the Foundation's ability to fund a balanced portfolio with the existing available budget.

We will not fund research unrelated to COVID-19 or basic studies that do not address urgent research or surveillance questions aligned with the priorities of public health listed below.


A webinar on Chicago CAN was presented on July 9, 2020. The presentation included messages from the Walder Foundation and leadership from public health, information on the Chicago CAN initiative and the RFP, and a brief Q/A session:

View the Chicago CAN Informational Webinar

Pwd: ChicagoCAN!2020


  • The Principal Investigator (PI) must be from a university, hospital, or nonprofit organization in the greater Chicago region.
  • Institutions can submit more than one proposal, but each proposal must be led by a unique PI.
  • Grantee organizations must be section 501(c)(3) public charities or qualifying governmental entities.
  • Grantees will not be prohibited from making sub-awards of grant funds at their discretion; this may include testing and community partners, whether nonprofit or for-profit.

Key Dates

July 7, 2020: Chicago CAN RFP release

July 9, 2020: Chicago CAN webinar

August 3, 2020: Application deadline (at 11:59 pm CST)

Proposals will be reviewed as rapidly as possible with the expectation that notifications and any requests for proposal revisions will take place in September. Proposals may be reviewed by Walder Foundation personnel, consultants and advisors to the Foundation, as well as the Department of Public Health employees who are providing input on this initiative. The number and focus areas of grant awards will be determined after all proposals have been reviewed.

Focus Areas

The following focus areas have been identified with input from the Illinois Department of Public Health, Chicago Department of Public Health, and the Cook County Department of Public Health.

We are seeking proposals that create meaningful and actionable results. The example questions underneath each focus area are not meant to be limiting.


We know that COVID-19 is not affecting all populations equally.

  • How much of this disparity could be attributed to factors such as crowded housing, certain occupations, education, disposable income, etc.? This could be designed as an ecological study (where the unit of analysis is an area such as a zip code or census tract) or an individual-level study (where individual information is collected and analyzed), or a multilevel study. Please include a testing component.
  • What occupations are at the greatest risk for COVID-19 cases and deaths? How does this differ by race/ethnicity?
  • What is the impact of “cycling through” the jails on COVID-19 community transmission and how does this impact communities of color?
  • How can we improve COVID-19 testing to better understand the impact on communities of color (ethnicity, age, geography, or other risk factors)?

Back to school

The reopening of schools is critical to reopening society. Yet there are still many unknowns about COVID-19 transmission and children.

  • How do we better understand the transmission dynamics in the K–12 school system among students, teachers and staff? Are schoolchildren serving as silent vectors?
  • What monitoring, testing and tracing might be implemented to understand if mild or asymptomatic transmission is occurring (e.g., strategic virologic and antibody testing in schoolchildren or testing staff as a sentinel population)?

Second wave or hotspot detection

There continue to be viral clusters and outbreaks as we reopen society and we expect there will be more. In addition, a second wave of COVID-19 is expected to occur in the fall or winter, coinciding with the flu season.

  • What innovative and/or strategic testing and study design will provide early detection of a “second wave” or detection of unexpected viral outbreaks that may emerge during reopening? How might we apply genomics to understand an outbreak response and avoid a second wave?
  • As the influenza season approaches, how might we address: dual detection; epidemiology and clinical characteristics of COVID-19 and influenza co-infection; or the incidence of COVID-19 infection among those who were vaccinated for influenza?
  • How can we identify outbreaks or hotspots early in congested living environments (e.g., multi-generational housing, colleges/universities, public housing, senior living centers, etc.)? How do living environments, namely multi-generational housing across Cook County, play a role in clusters or outbreaks?
  • How might understanding serologic antibodies in the Illinois population increase our understanding of hotspot detection?
  • In addition to traditional testing studies, some approaches to consider include using sewage/wastewater monitoring, swab and send or home sampling, and/or a pooled testing approach.

Contact tracing

Chicago and neighboring communities will be increasing their contact-tracing workforce in an attempt to quickly stifle new transmission chains. Success will depend on positive cases and their contacts complying with isolation and quarantining.

  • How might we enable better compliance for contact-tracing efforts?
  • When is the optimal time to test a contact following exposure so as not to provide a false clearance to return to work or school, yet not require self-quarantine any longer than necessary (e.g., a time series of daily testing of a cohort of COVID-19 positive cases and their contacts to determine an optimal window for testing and/or duration of isolation or quarantine)? Consider including serology testing to determine if contacts have already been exposed.

Public transportation

There is a presumption and fear that public transportation is going to be a continued source of transmission.

  • What evidence can we generate to determine if that is or is not the case (e.g., test cohorts of employees or students using public transportation versus those who travel by car or bicycle)?
  • How do we monitor and assess the level of risk associated with public transportation and effective methods to reduce that risk?


Community sampling is important to the Walder Foundation's future vision of exploring the development of an early warning system. One of the primary components being used in the SCAN (Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network) study to assist King County and Seattle Public Health Departments is a swab and send testing model.

  • What specific questions and priorities can be addressed in the Chicago region through this type of community self-sampling strategy?
  • How can at-home testing options be used to better understand prevalence and incidence rates across the Chicago region?
  • How can we better detect and understand asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic transmission?

Other areas

A few other areas from which we would consider proposals:

  • How can we design and test pragmatic adaptations of air handling in enclosed spaces that mitigate transmission of SARS CoV-2 (especially as we anticipate entering the “closed spaces season” in Chicago as early as September, and in workplaces year-round)?
  • What data infrastructure is needed to maximize the learning and impact from the Chicago CAN initiative?
  • What innovative testing technologies can be developed, implemented and rapidly deployed in concert with public health authorities and that offer significant advantages over current methods.

We are looking for proposals that include collecting samples from the community and incorporate one or more of the following:

  • Engage scientists and other experts across a variety of disciplines and are committed to working with public health leaders and community stakeholders.
  • Where relevant, include community voices from the early planning stage, including support for community engagement.
  • Generate knowledge to address an immediate COVID-19 need and provide a building block for a future epidemic immune system (e.g., collecting and storing samples from the community, testing or utilizing the swab and send method or at-home collection method).
  • Create multi-institutional collaborations across the Chicago research ecosystem.
  • Develop innovative tools for collecting samples from the community or, in some way, lead to improved community sampling.
  • Apply or incorporate concepts, methods or technologies not currently being used in the Chicago region for understanding COVID-19 transmission.
  • Address the testing needs of and create a deeper understanding of transmission dynamics specific to underserved populations, neighborhoods most impacted, or areas otherwise experiencing health, social, economic and/or racial disparities.
  • Incorporate or validate an end-to-end, swab and send sampling collection methodology.
  • Develop the data infrastructure to share learnings and testing data among the network of researchers and public health.

We will not consider proposals that:

  • Do not provide information to address a current COVID-19 public health need.
  • Are focused solely on educational campaigns.
  • Are focused solely on secondary analysis of existing studies or systematic reviews.
  • Circumvent the public sector completely.
  • Require long-term financial support to be sustained, unless funding has already been committed (e.g., biobank).


  • Timely data-sharing with the Illinois, Chicago and/or Cook County Departments of Public Health to enable public health decision-making.
  • Diagnostic testing, specimen collection, and reporting of results to public health departments must be performed in accordance with all applicable laws, regulations, and standards of care.
  • Prospective inclusion of components enabling “break-the-glass“ testing for a novel virus, should one emerge in the next couple of years (e.g., IRB determination or review to allow for emergent novel virus or outbreak testing as well as the ability and operational plans to report data to the appropriate public health departments [city, county and/or state]).
  • The expectation is that all samples/specimens collected under this grant will be stored for at least two years and made available for testing upon activation of a “break-the-glass“ request in the event of another outbreak of pandemic potential.

Application Process

Your complete application will consist of the following four components:

  1. Application form (not included in total page limit)
  2. Proposal - up to five pages (excluding references)
  3. Line-item budget (not included in total page limit)
  4. For collaborations only: Letter of support signed by an authorized representative of the collaborating organization and describing the organization's commitment to the proposed project (one page or less per collaboration, not included in total page limit)

The Chicago CAN Proposal Packet contains templates for the application and budget, and an application guide with proposal instructions and grant terms.

DOWNLOAD the Chicago CAN Proposal Packet

Application deadline: August 3, 2020 at 11:59 pm CST