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We really can track COVID-19 through wastewater

This is terrific news.

Researchers with the city, Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine were able to sniff out a potential second outbreak of COVID-19 at a homeless shelter in downtown Houston earlier this year by looking down its drains instead of in people’s noses, health officials said Thursday.

Quashing the resurgence at the Star of Hope Men’s Shelter earlier this year was one of the first successes of an effort to track the novel coronavirus through wastewater, city officials said Thursday. The initiative, one of several occurring around the country, attempts to spot outbreaks by sampling water at city treatment facilities, which could help officials tailor their testing and prevention efforts to specific neighborhoods.

To date, the results from testing wastewater largely have aligned with those from nasal swab testing, said Dr. Loren Hopkins, the city’s chief environmental science officer. That has increased the confidence that the wastewater sampling is accurate. The benefit, she said, is that wastewater tests produce quicker results.

“Ultimately, the goal is to 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 the slow the spread of this virus,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

People shed the virus through feces, regardless of whether they experience symptoms. The city was able to detect the virus in the shelter by placing a sampler on the manhole outside the facility after its initial outbreak of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

The ability to home in on a single building still is limited, Hopkins said. City officials have deployed that strategy for the shelter and the Harris County Jail, and they are trying to acquire more equipment to expand the effort in the fall. The health department plans to begin testing long-term care facilities, for example.

[…]

So far, there has been a strong correlation between the viral load in the wastewater and the positivity rates by nasal tests, so the method has not unearthed large swaths of the virus that have gone undetected by tests. Still, that correlation has increased confidence that the wastewater analysis is accurate and can be used as a bellwether for future outbreaks.

From Sept. 7 to Sept. 14, for example, scientists found the virus was increasing in a statistically significant way in the communities served by the Tidwell Timber, Upper Brays and Forest Cove treatment plants, among others, while decreasing in District 23, White Oak and Homestead.

That information, coupled with the local positivity rate and other factors, helped the health department decide where to send strike teams to test people, conduct outreach and provide education about the virus. The city said the wastewater study has resulted in more testing at several congregant living centers.

See here and here for the background. This method is extra useful because it provides a more focused view of where the cases are clustering, and the testing is faster, so the response to the test results is also faster. If we are ever going to get a handle on this disease, especially before there’s a vaccine but also after one is available, it’s going to come from technology like this that gives a real-time and location-specific view of where the virus is happening. We should be rooting for this to ramp up as much and as quickly as possible. Kudos to all for making this happen. The Press has more.

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