Nebraska researchers partner with Lincoln Wastewater for early virus detection

UNL is partnering with different groups in a study using wastewater to detect COVID-19 outbreaks
Published: Jul. 7, 2020 at 7:24 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - With assistance from the Lincoln Wastewater System, researchers from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln have launched projects to use wastewater samples for early detection of COVID-19. The work is among several coronavirus-related research projects underway at Nebraska.

Previous studies have shown that many people who are COVID-19 positive can shed the novel coronavirus via their stool even when they have only mild symptoms, said Xu Li, an environmental engineering professor at Nebraska who is co-leading one of the projects.

“Studies have shown that levels of coronavirus in municipal wastewater can correspond with the spread of COVID-19 in a community,” Li said. “We hope to quantify the coronavirus levels in the wastewater from six regions within Lincoln to see if we can detect such a correlation.”

Megan Kelley, an assistant professor of nutrition and health sciences at Nebraska, will co-lead the Lincoln-based project with Li. Kelley will assess how community-level contextual factors and local policy measures relate to levels of coronavirus in the wastewater samples over time. Both researchers are working with Lincoln officials so samples can be taken precisely.

Shannon Bartelt-Hunt, chair of the civil and environmental engineering department at Nebraska, collected wastewater samples weekly from Lincoln, Grand Island and Omaha in early April and worked with UNMC scientists on testing methods and potentially learning more about its origins as well as precautions needed for utility workers. Jesse Bell, a professor of health and environment at UNMC, said this form of sampling has some advantages over regular COVID-19 testing.

Bell said, “With sampling, there’s a potential with doing a passive method through wastewater that we would do a better job of identifying whether it’s in the community itself.”

Bartelt-Hunt said her team will be able to compare the samples taken during the past three months to the progression of the disease in Lincoln, Omaha and Grand Island. In a study conducted at Yale University, researchers were able to predict the number of cases seven days ahead using the amounts of coronavirus found in the samples.

“It’s a predictive tool. It can give you a sense of the number of cases that will occur so you can target testing resources and directed health measures,” Bartelt-Hunt said. “It gives you more information about what’s happening in the community.”

The Lincoln Transportation and Utilities Department is partnering with the universities and LTU Assistant Director Donna Garden said the city’s participation is part of multiple efforts to keep the community safe.

“Access to clean water, proper handling of wastewater and many more everyday services is key to maintaining Lincoln’s quality of life,” she said. “To provide opportunities for these researchers to collect wastewater samples during the pandemic and see the importance of how this data can assist all of us with making data-driven decisions is just one-way LTU keeps our community safe.”

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