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SALT LAKE CITY — The results from a sewage sampling pilot program led by the Utah Division of Water Quality has given hope for early detection of coronavirus in our communities.
Scientists discovered they can track the coronavirus in our sewage.
“Big picture, we were able to discover that we can indeed see and track the virus in sewage,” said Erica Gaddis, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality.
Monitoring of coronavirus in our sewage systems could offer helpful tools to our public health departments trying to detect fluctuations in the virus in the community.
Two months ago, researchers in Utah starting to test wastewater for the coronavirus at the inlets of 10 wastewater treatment plants across Utah. They discovered the stuff we flush away can help them estimate the prevalence of infection in a community without testing everyone.
“Rather than testing each individual person in the community, we can do a community-wide sampling in the wastewater,” said Jennifer Weidhaas, professor of environmental engineering at the University of Utah. “(It provides) significant cost savings to the state. I think it gives the public health partners great information.”
In mid-April, scientists at the Utah Division of Water Quality, University of Utah, Utah State University and Brigham Young University started to measure the genetic material of the coronavirus in sewage entering 10 treatment plants in Utah.
That represents about 40 percent of the Beehive State’s population.
The virus is shed in feces from infected people, including those who are asymptomatic. That’s how it gets into the sewage systems.
“The initial results show that we can not only detect the virus in sewage but we can see trends that are broadly consistent with known infection rates in Utah’s communities,” said Gaddis. “Monitoring virus in Utah’s sewage systems offers a tool for early detection of rising infections, monitoring community infection trends, and confirmation of low infection rates. We hope that monitoring the sewage can help in prioritizing limited state resources such as mobile testing.”
They measured coronavirus concentrations in samples taken at the inlets of the plants. Those concentrations were coupled with wastewater flow and service area populations to estimate the concentration of the virus in that community.
We can definitely indicate when there is an increasing number of people that are ill in a community.
–Jennifer Weidhaas, University of Utah
The highest concentrations of the virus were found in urban areas.
“We can definitely indicate when there is an increasing number of people that are ill in a community,” said Weidhaas. “I think we’ve proven in Park City we can see when there’s a decrease in the number of people that are ill in the community — but I don’t think we have a one-to-one correlation right now.”
They also found that monitoring for coronavirus in sewage offers a tool for early detection of rising infections, and other trends.
The virus was found in the water entering all 10 treatment plants and in 64 percent of the 117 samples collected.
It was not detected in the treated water leaving any of the plants.
In late May, spikes in the virus were measured in the sewage headed to treatment plants in Logan and Hyrum. That trend reflects the increase in active cases reported for Cache Valley.
The Utah Department of Health is analyzing the data from the pilot program and will determine whether sewage sampling can help in the ongoing COVID-19 response.
The next step is to figure out how to use the information in our communities, as the state expands testing two more wastewater treatment plants.