DHHS working to monitor COVID in wastewater across the state

(University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
Published: Mar. 31, 2022 at 7:25 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - In the fight against COVID-19, health leaders across Nebraska have been using different tools to track cases and potential surges.

One of the newest methods involves studying wastewater, something experts say is not only useful now but could be even more helpful in the future.

Nebraska is one of the dozens of states participating in a CDC study of wastewater. The state has 13 participating sites across Nebraska that are collecting samples to be used in this research. Some of the longest-studied ones are in Lancaster County.

Samples are collected from wastewater sites and analyzed in labs across the state to track the virus.

“We learned you could find it in your nose, in your nasal pharynx, in saliva,” said Dr. Matthew Donahue, Nebraska’s State Epidemiologist. “You could also find it in sewage.”

The National Wastewater Surveillance System is used as an early detection tool for viruses. Researchers have found that they can track levels of Sars COV-2, the virus that causes COVID in solid waste. The CDC study has shown that wastewater can have traceable levels of the virus in someone, about a week before a test would be able to detect.

“Over multiple sites, it seems to be somewhere between four days and two weeks where we are finding a change in wastewater earlier than were finding it in people,” Dr. Donahue said. “But it’s in that where its greatest use lies, right, we hope that we’re able to use wastewater surveillance as a good gauge as to what’s next in people.”

Dr. Donahue said it’s not an entirely new practice; similar research has previously been done to track viruses like polio, but the work in this study has the potential to be used on other viruses in the future.

“We’re building this wastewater surveillance for Sars-COV 2, for COVID-19,” Dr. Donahue said. “But in this were making partnerships we’re developing a protocol, we’re figuring out the logistics and operations of doing statewide wastewater surveillance and it has multiple potential futures uses.”

The research can also be used to trace those who might be asymptomatic to get a better picture of what case rates might look like in communities even for those who don’t have a recorded positive test.

“People might be excreting virus when they’re mildly symptomatic before they even think to go get a test when we might not know they’re positive otherwise,” Dr. Donahue said. “So it’s in the potential predictability where wastewater can give us a trend before we can see that trend happening in people.”

Much of that research is also done with the help of those at UNL who work in a research capacity already as well as students.

Dr. Donahue said all the funding for the project is coming through the CDC, through at least 2024.

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