Wastewater serves as reliable surveillance tool for COVID-19

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Wastewater surveillance programs, first studied in a paper co-authored by Rochester area researchers, were considered to be a potential option to identify COVID outbreaks at the beginning of the pandemic. Since that time, both colleges and local governments have adopted these types of programs with success.

Monitoring water for disease is a process which has existed as far back as the 1850s, before germ theory was even proven. In London, doctors were able to track outbreaks of cholera by mapping out neighborhood water pumps. Nearly a century later, in the 1940s, researchers from Yale University tracked outbreaks of polio by testing for traces in Connecticut water and sewage.

In the case of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which contains COVID-19, infected people shed the virus in their feces before they begin displaying symptoms, meaning wastewater can provide an early indicator for the virus. If a spike is detected, officials know where to focus their testing efforts and where a lockdown might be appropriate to implement.

The process, although refined and upgraded over the years, has remained largely the same: after representative water samples are taken upstream from residential areas, they are concentrated, treated to RNA extraction, and tested for viral content. While they can detect specific viruses, the samples themselves are not contagious with the disease.

Katrina Smith Korfmacher

As early as April 2020, researchers in the Netherlands attempted a similar tracing process with the then-novel COVID disease. The following year, “Campus Collaborations As a Model for Transforming SARS-CoV-2 Wastewater Surveillance Research into Public Health Action,” which examined how higher education institutions could engage in this process, was published in the International Journal of Environmental Public Health.

That paper’s contributors include Katrina Smith Korfmacher, professor and director of the Community Engagement Core of the Department of Environmental Medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and Todd Camenisch, professor and chair at Wegmans School of Pharmacy at St. John Fisher College.

“I was struck by the key role of collaboration in all of these efforts. In most places, the initial focus was on the technical challenges, sensitivity of methods and implementing the monitoring program,” says Korfmacher. “At the end of the day, however, the ability to communicate, interpret and use the resulting information turned out to require strong, ongoing partnerships between diverse stakeholders. We really believe that this approach can promote equity in COVID-19 surveillance.”

The paper studied more than two dozen colleges across the country, highlighting the triumphs and challenges with water waste surveillance systems. Despite differences in financial and technical resources and campus physical characteristics, all locations found value in the process. 

For example, in August 2020, the University of Arizona detected the virus in the wastewater from a student dormitory and, after follow up testing, transferred two asymptomatic infected students to an isolation facility, potentially preventing an outbreak of COVID-19 on campus.

Rochester Institute of Technology, which was not studied by that initial paper, started a water waste surveillance program in summer 2020. The institute has determined that viral RNA rates have been three to five times less than rates seen at other universities because of these efforts. That success means RIT has been able to decrease waterwaste surveillance checkpoints from 15 to four. 

At the county level, the Frank E. VanLare wastewater treatment center covers the majority of Monroe County, while the Webster-T STP/WW Bradley Pollution Control Facility is located in the town of Webster. According to the most recently available data from the Center for Disease Control, both locations have experienced decreases in intensity over the past two weeks. This trend aligns with an overall recent decrease in COVID cases in Rochester.

Across New York State, 23 counties and 35 treatment plants are participating in some form of wastewater surveillance covering a population of over 700,000.

The success of water waste surveillance programs and the enduring presence of the COVID disease likely mean these programs are here to stay.

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer.The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

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