Kansas expands monitoring of wastewater for early warning of COVID-19 outbreaks

Kansas Department of Health and Environment secretary Lee Norman on Wednesday delivers an update on COVID-19 testing efforts in Kansas during his weekly news briefing at the Statehouse. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Scientists in April discovered wastewater from Hiawatha indicated an extensive presence in the community of COVID-19.

At the time, there were no positive cases of the virus in Brown County, which encompasses a sparsely populated rural area along the Nebraska border in northeast Kansas.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment, which had contracted with the University of Kansas College of Engineering to evaluate the merits of wastewater surveillance, notified local authorities of the need to be vigilant about social distancing and proper hygiene.

KDHE secretary Lee Norman used the Brown County surveillance as an example Wednesday of the promise of wastewater surveillance. The agency is expanding the experimental program to 95 of the state’s 105 counties through a combination of funding sources that include private, foundation, state and federal dollars.

The pilot program with KU showed COVID-19 frequently appears in wastewater before there’s an outbreak in the community. Expanded wastewater surveillance will provide health officials a roughly seven-day head start, Norman said.

“While we realize it isn’t a silver bullet for COVID-19, it does provide us additional pieces of data that we can use to fight COVID-19,” Norman said.

Total COVID-19 infections in the state have soared in recent months to 63,952, including 161 in Brown County.

On Tuesday, Norman said, the state set a new one-day record with 81 hospitalizations for COVID-19. Total hospitalizations in Kansas are now the highest they’ve ever been, he said. There are COVID-19 patients in 642 of the 965 intensive care unit beds available statewide.

KDHE also added 17 new deaths between Monday and Wednesday to the statewide total of 723.

The agency’s latest list of locations connected to five or more COVID-19 cases includes outbreaks at Bunge Corporation in Atchison, Cargill and National Beef meatpacking plants in Dodge City, and US Foods in Topeka. High schools in Derby and Pittsburg are on the list, along with Dodge City public schools.

Long-term care facilities continue to be the largest source for outbreaks, with 17 facilities on the list. The largest outbreak in the state from the past two weeks involves 54 infections at Infinity Park Post Acute and Rehab Center in Overland Park.