Across the country, water systems and facilities are working to implement new methods to help track the spread of COVID-19. Being able to detect potential outbreaks early is critical for the safe reopening of communities, and compelling research indicates wastewater epidemiology could be a major key in catching COVID-19 early.
According to recent research (such as this report from the Water Research Foundation), testing wastewater for the presence of COVID-19 RNA can provide a seven day leading indicator of outbreaks, compared to other compiled testing data. Scientists believe that humans begin shedding the virus RNA up to five days prior to average symptom onset, meaning this detection method can catch outbreaks early — instead of individuals waiting to develop symptoms before being tested, potentially infecting others during that time period.
This method had already been implemented in numerous communities across the country. I’ve gathered some relevant news articles from the past few months to show how various local governments and universities are implementing this method and am sharing them below!
The City of Houston implemented wastewater monitoring from the city’s 39 treatment plants to analyze for COVID-19 RNA. “The goal is to help develop an early warning system, allowing the health department to identify the city’s COVID-19 hot spots sooner and put measures in place to slow the spread of this disease,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. This monitoring method was able to detect the return of COVID-19 to a homeless shelter that had been a hotspot earlier in the year, allowing them to stop it early.
Learn more about Houston’s approach in this article from News Tribune.
The Ohio Department of Health is conducting wastewater monitoring for coronavirus across the state. “Having this information gives communities an opportunity to act proactively to prevent outbreaks,” says Rebecca Fugitt, assistant chief of the Bureau of Environmental Health and Radiation Protection. When the Department of Health notices sustained upticks in their data, they notify local health officials, who are able to provide resources including popup testing and contact tracing.
Learn more about Ohio Department of Health’s approach by exploring its COVID-19 Dashboard.
You can hear more from Rebecca directly at 120Water’s upcoming webinar.
The University of Arizona was able to catch a potential Covid-19 outbreak in a dorm through wastewater testing, as reported by the Washington Post. When a wastewater sample from a dorm on campus showed increased levels of COVID-19 RNA, the University was able to act quickly to test all 311 people who live and work there. They found two asymptomatic students who tested positive–students who would have likely not gotten tested without symptoms, and potentially infected several others. “With this early detection, we jumped on it right away, tested those youngsters, and got them the appropriate isolation where they needed to be,” said Richard Carmona, a former U.S. surgeon general who is directing the school’s reentry task force.
Learn more about the University of Arizona’s approach in this article from the Washington Post.
Through a 120Water pilot program, the City of Bloomington Utilities began testing wastewater for coronavirus in August. Samples are collected three times each week at eight sites across Bloomington, helping them better analyze where infections are most prevalent in the city. They plan to base policy decisions on the results after gathering baseline information.
Learn more about the City of Bloomington Utilities’ pilot in this article from WBIW.
A small team at the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas is leading an effort to take samples from two of Austin’s major wastewater treatment facilities to test for COVID-19 RNA. “If you can have a warning that an outbreak is coming, you can gear up your medical personnel and say, you know, ‘We can see that there’s this huge spike. They haven’t arrived in the hospital, yet, but get ready,’” Professor Mary Jo Kirisits said. The team hopes to expand efforts to neighborhoods city-wide, planning to dedicate more resources to hotspots that are caught early through this method..
Lean more about the approach in Austin, TX, in this article from KXAN.
We’re hosting How to Bring COVID-19 Wastewater Monitoring into the Field on October 27th. This webinar features speakers from Water Research Foundation, EPA, Ohio Department of Health and 120WaterAudit to share research, lessons learned, and case studies on how to implement, interpret, and use this methodology. You can attend live on Tuesday, or register to receive the recording after. Register here!