Monitoring wastewater for early detection of COVID-19

Published: Dec. 14, 2020 at 6:43 PM CST
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - Wastewater treatment facilities are being used for early detection of COVID-19 in communities that could help you and your neighbors.

Wausau Water Works is one of 80 Wisconsin facilities used for the identification of COVID-19, so when you flush your toilet, health officials test the feces for a clearer picture of the virus.

Twice per week, wastewater plants around the state collect samples to test for COVID-19.

“We just are collecting the samples and then sending them down to the lab,” Wausau Water Works Wastewater Superintendent David Erickson said.

That lab is the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene in Madison, where microbiologists like Kayley Janssen analyze wastewater to detect SARS-CoV-2, which causes the COVID-19 virus.

“We are hoping that the wastewater data is going to be used as kind of the early indicator of what could be happening within a community,” Janssen said.

Janssen said since everyone flushes their waste, examining wastewater goes hand in hand with traditional COVID-19 testing, and it gives a more accurate count of potential cases before people even show symptoms or if they’re asymptomatic to COVID-19.

“Not all communities in Wisconsin have access to testing like we do in Madison or Milwaukee where you can easily go into a clinic or drive up to set up where you can get tested every day,” Janssen said.

Samples are gathered into the machine at the various wastewater plants and then the water travels into the sampler and the feces samples can show if COVID-19 is increasing or decreasing in a community.

Data from samples is eventually passed to the department of health services to report back to communities and local health officials.

For example, between Nov. 23 and Dec. 8, cases found in the Wausau sewer shed saw a shrinking trajectory.

“The sampler is set up so it has five different sampling jugs and so it can run for four days if we needed it to, but generally we collect the samples every morning,” Erickson said.

Collecting samples began in September and it could stick around for data on other viruses like the flu. Wastewater testing has also been used in other places such as the Middle East to detect polio.

The state laboratory of hygiene also said data can be used to determine how well protective measures are working.

Check out the interactive COVID-19 wastewater data for Wisconsin by following the link.

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