SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – What you’re sending down the sewers is vital information for the State of Utah’s fight against the COVID-19 Pandemic. With the rise in COVID-19 cases across the state, engineers and scientists are collecting wastewater to detect the virus.
“Every week we get different amounts of samples, we test different locations, so we have to keep up with constant change,” says University of Utah Masters Student Katrina Brown.
Brown is helping Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering Jennifer Weidhaas perfect the wastewater testing program.
“We started in March, right after we knew that COVID was starting to spread in the United States,” says Weidhass.
By the end of October, Bringham Young University, Dixie State University, and Utah State University partnered with the two aid in the fight.
“We were trying to do anything we could to help the state and respond to the pandemic,” she adds. “It’s been both fascinating and terrible at the same time.”
Wastewater epidemiology is nothing new. It can be used to detect chemicals, drugs, and viruses like SARS-CoV-2.
“Obviously no one wanted this pandemic to happen, but this is the forefront of public health,” says U of U Masters Student Karen Valcarce.
Valcarce is one of the students who extracts the coronavirus in the wastewater.
“If we are able to detect COVID in the wastewater then we can act sooner,” she says.
We wanted to know what the precautions were in addition to standard protocols to test for the virus.
“The first thing we all do is we wear a mask, right, because we are in close courters working with lots of different students and we don’t want to transmit it to them and we don’t want to get sick from someone who is a-symptomatic,” says Weidhaas. “Second, we are going to wear a lab coat. We are going to wear gloves. We are also going to heat up the sample because we know the virus is probably present in wastewater and we don’t want anyone to get sick from it.”
She says current science indicates you can’t get COVID-19 from wastewater.
“We can detect outbreaks in the wastewater before we start to see the case counts increase in the community,” says Weidhass.
The professor and her colleagues take that information and hand it to the state to get resources in affected communities.
“And we are also going to start monitoring for the flu virus as well because the public health partners are very concerned about the people who are going to get influenza if they don’t get a flu shot, and also having SARS-COV2, cause both of those people might be putting a strain on our hospitals,” she says.
Professor Weidhass says the goal is to expand the wastewater program at the beginning of 2021 to more areas of the state because it’s easier to test mass populations and they can get the results in roughly 24 hours.