Researchers Use Wastewater to Help Monitor Communities for COVID-19

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What you flush down your toilet is ending up in two major universities in Connecticut.

Sewage surveillance is another tool in the fight against the coronavirus; an early warning system is helping dozens of Connecticut communities manage the spread of COVID-19.

“A simple way to measure the virus and to test everybody within a city is just to see what goes down their toilet,” explained Dr. Jordan Peccia, Yale University Environmental engineering professor, and head of the school’s wastewater surveillance study.

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, scientists have scrambled to come up with ways to measure the spread of COVID-19. Positive tests and hospitalizations are the metrics we hear most.

“The way that we actually detect the virus in the wastewater is almost exactly the same way that they detect the virus in your nose when you go for testing,” Peccia explained.

Peccia pointed out that by looking at wastewater, scientists may discover outbreaks of disease quicker and more accurately than traditional tests.

“Testing can sometimes miss people,” he said. “We also know that if we’re testing everything in the wastewater we’re going to get everything.”

The results are returned by the next day sometimes even the same day, Pecchia said.

“We might get a bit of a leading indicator on whether or not an outbreak is happening, whether cases are increasing, or whether cases that have been increasing have turned the corner and are decreasing,” he explained.

Peccia is heading up a partnership with the state to test the wastewater at seven plants that cover 1 million people, or a quarter of Connecticut. That includes the Greater Hartford area, New Haven, New London, and Norwich, which recently experienced an uptick.

“Getting at the heart of getting the virus out of the city of Norwich includes turning over every possible stone. This is another way for us to analyze what’s happening in the community,” said Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom.

Wastewater being pulled for COVID-testing from the MDC plant in Hartford also comes from Bloomfield, Newington, West Hartford, and parts of Wethersfield
“It covers 400,000 people so there’s a big advantage, one sample getting an idea of what’s going on in that large area, but we’re not able to separate the towns,” said Peccia.

New Haven was the first to partner with the school to have their wastewater tested.

“It’s allowed us to sort of anticipate what’s coming,” said the city’s public health director, Maritza Bond. “They are able to project approximately five days out.”

She said when her community saw a spike six weeks ago, the wastewater data was able to confirm what was happening and help them plan the next step.

Whether we need to increase messaging, increase testing, and community awareness,” she added.

Officials in Norwich hope the results from their wastewater surveillance, which show a downward trend, are mirrored in future case numbers.

“It can take several days to be able to give us a result, so we’re always looking a little bit behind. What the wastewater can do is sometimes it can give us a picture going forward,” said UNCAS Health Director Patrick McCormack.

The University of Connecticut is also using this technique to track the virus through its dorms.

“When you are sick, your body has to get rid of those viruses you are replicating,” explained Dr. Kendra Maas, University of Connecticut Microbial Analysis, Resources, and Services. “We can tell when the virus is increasing in the system which probably means more people are being infected and we can also tell when the virus is lower in the system,”

While visiting UConn’s Hartford campus on Thursday, Dr. Deborah Birx, who coordinates the White House’s coronavirus task force touted that school’s wastewater surveillance.

Dr. Deborah Birx, of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, visited Connecticut on Thursday to discuss the successes UConn has seen at controlling the spread of COVID-19 among its students.

“We would like them to take that statewide to really be able to tell community whether there’s spread in their community or not,” she said. “To get a real target on where the virus is, how it’s spreading, and protecting the students, staff, and community.”

“It is currently 100% feasible for any town with their own wastewater system to send me samples and I will process them for them,” said Maas, noting that no community has taken them up on the offer so far.

Though Peccia agrees expanding testing even further across the state will only help Connecticut stay ahead of what’s happening in the pandemic, he pointed out that it would be impossible to test every Connecticut resident’s wastewater for COVID-19 because so many have septic tanks.

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