When Tracking the Pandemic, the Scoop May Be in the . . . Well, Sewer

by Patrick J. Paul

Traditionally, Labor Day weekend in the United States means “back-to-school.” In this pandemic year, however, many schools remain closed indefinitely to in-person learning, while others opened early with the goal of completing the semester coincident with Thanksgiving break in November, thus limiting travel and the potential for future spread.

As educational institutions at all levels across the nation are faced with the challenge of how, if at all, to open once again to in-person learning, achieving some degree of certainty with respect to the pandemic spread can be critical. Temperature checks, self reporting of health conditions, social distancing, and contact tracing have been proven to be helpful weapons in the arsenal of slowing the spread of COVID-19.

On-campus university settings can provide particular challenges as students are generally in closer quarters not necessarily conducive to social distancing. However, that clustering of students also may provide some opportunity for predicting likely future spread of the virus.

As we reported previously in April and June, researchers at both Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University, as well as others from around the country and world were evaluating the potential link between wastewater discharge and COVID-19 predictors – a form of wastewater-based epidemiology.

While certain universities have been impacted by an outbreak of the virus following a return to campus activities, researchers at the University of Arizona in Tucson were able to stunt the spread of the virus through wastewater analysis which helped predict the presence of COVID-19 in a particular dormitory.

In order to return to campus, students were required to be tested for COVID-19. Students that tested negative could move on to campus subject to adherence to mitigation measures like distancing.

In late August, as part of a dedicated effort to ensure the safety of students and faculty on campus, the Water and Energy Sustainable Technology Center (WEST) tested wastewater at several locations to monitor for the presence of the virus. Upon discovering traces of the virus at one location,  researchers honed in on the impacted dormitory and began additional testing which identified two asymptomatic students out of the 311 tested.  Those students were subsequently quarantined, thus preventing a likely outbreak and perhaps shut down of the University.

But these studies are not limited to Arizona schools.  In fact, colleges across the nation, including in New Mexico, Tennessee, Michigan, New York and Utah, are utilizing wastewater testing as a public health tool. Researchers view this tool as particularly helpful as it can help evaluate for the presence of the virus in those that aren’t sick.

As more universities and schools will continue to open and/or seek to remain open, testing wastewater for the presence of COVID-19 may continue to play an important role in ensuring safety. In the end, the scoop to preventing the spread of the pandemic may really be in the poop.

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