Tracking COVID-19 in wastewater may be useful in future months

Wastewater is used to track the opioid epidemic and some states are using it to see spread of coronavirus
Waste Water Tracing

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – New research is showing coronavirus hot spots well before they show up in hospitals. Some states and countries are using sewage to detect COVID-19 to find out how a community is doing with the spread.

The more scientists learn about COVID-19, the more ways are discovered to track its spread. Gundersen Health System director of infection control, Bridget Pfaff, says communities can track coronavirus DNA in sewage systems.

“I get excited about that kind of technology and the opportunities to use that,” Pfaff said. “If there is increasing amounts of the DNA detected that’s a sign that there are more people infected.”

A USA Today investigation highlights several communities doing this work already. California, Florida, Massachusetts, Paris, Australia, and the Netherlands tested sewage for COVID-19 this spring.

The USA Today report shows researchers found hot spots days, and sometimes weeks before those cases appeared in hospital admissions data and clinical testing.

“It might be very useful as we progress through the next several months, but we don’t know how useful,” Pfaff said.

La Crosse County Health officials say more research and planning is needed to make this an option for La Crosse.

A spokesperson said in part, “We can see the value if residents in all communities used the same treatment system. Our staff do not have the capacity to explore this further at this time. If we find this is a strategy that makes sense to adopt we’ll provide an update.”

Pfaff said this isn’t new technology.

“As we look at the opioid epidemic in our society. This is something that you can evaluate how communities are doing with the Opioid crisis based on what the sewage plants are showing,” Pfaff said.

Researchers are working to improve how results are created. It might be useful when tracking the expected fall resurgence of the virus.

“This is just one more tool in our tool chest from a public health perspective that could help us as we face the coming months,” Pfaff said.

Universities are weighing options for students to return this fall.  The University of Arizona is planning to monitor its wastewater for at least a year.