80 percent of Utahns monitored for COVID-19 through wastewater

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – What you consider disgusting waste, the state sees as valuable information in the battle against COVID-19.

The Department of Environmental Quality monitors 80 percent of the state’s population by pulling dirty water samples from 42 sewage treatment plants looking for the coronavirus gene.

“The benefit of just testing the wastewater is that we get a community snapshot of what is happening and that we are not running into a situation of this person or that person. It gives us a broad picture of what is happening in the community,” said DEQ’s Spokesperson Jared Mendenhall. “It is a tool we can use we hope can show whether we are seeing surges or seeing declines and that it will help us have a more effective public response to this pandemic.”

Officials say they predicted an outbreak happening in Cache Valley. We’d later find out hundreds were affected by COVID-19 at a meat processing plant.

“That spike coincided with us finishing that pilot program, and so we were able to use that data to show this was actionable information that was coming from sampling this wastewater,” he said.

Now officials see another spike coming from the same area.

“After weeks and weeks of those rates going down in the sampling from the wastewater, we are also seeing that uptick that we believe may be coming from those students who are returning,” said Mendenhall.

The dirty water with COVID-19 is testing cleaner in some areas of the state.

“We see some decreases in places like Salt Lake County, and we are keeping an eye on those rural communities where we have had long trends of non-detect, so it is a tool that we’ve been able to deploy,” he adds.

A tool health departments use to increase messaging and resources to areas where wastewater comes back positive for COVID-19.

“The hope of course is you’re going to be able to see some of these spikes prior to widespread infection,” Mendenhall said.

Officials with DEQ say all water is treated before it goes back out to the public, and there is no evidence that COVID-19 can spread in the treated water.

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