The future of public health research just may be found literally going down the drain.
“I think it has been a useful piece of information that the state and others have used in terms of trying to track the progression of the disease,” said Jordan Peccia of the Yale University School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Back in March 2020, students and staff at the university began studying Covid-19 in sewage in the absence of available, widespread testing.
Soon after, they were able to predict community spread days before individual test results.
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“The lesson from SARS-COV-2 has been that it works a lot better than people thought it would,” Peccia said. “It works a lot better than I thought it would originally.”
The program was eventually funded by the Department of Public Health through a Covid relief grant. It covers Stamford, Bridgeport, New Haven, Danbury, Hartford, New London and Norwich.
“It’s a fantastic local resource that we can use,” said Karl Minges the interim dean of the University of New Haven School of Health Sciences.
Minges says the weekly reports helped form their Covid plan for students and staff by providing early numbers on Covid case rates in the greater New Haven area.
“(It is) helping us from a perspective of speed to really get accurate information that sometimes individual testing is not so good at giving you,” Minges said.
He adds that it also helps them determine when to issue information and protocol for students like mask mandates and social distancing.
The program’s success at predicting cases is seen in the close alignment with case rates up to a week later. Some hope that, because of its value to the public health field, there can be funding for it beyond when the grant ends in October.
“It does allow for us as public health officials to have an opportunity to know what our case rate is at the local level, and really affords an opportunity for us to really consider investing into this type of surveillance when we’re trying to do other disease monitoring,” said New Haven Health Director Maritza Bond. “Could you believe your poop can tell you a lot?”
Bond says Covid testing is still vital and in fact, the state will open a new testing site in New Haven this week. Because not everyone gets tested, wastewater can be a resource for Covid and other community diseases.
The Yale Covid-19 Wastewater Tracker team is already working on that as a possibility.
“We’re working on trying to be able to do that both from developing the technology, and get the funding in place to be able to expand this to other infectious diseases,” said Peccia.