Belinda Sturm, a University of Kansas engineering professor, says a research project involving KU and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment shows testing of wastewater can offer a one-week advance warning of COVID-19 community surges or declines. (Submitted/Kansas Reflector)
LAWRENCE — Testing of wastewater systems in more than a dozen cities in Kansas for genetic evidence of COVID-19 can offer a one-week advance warning of a community’s infection surge or decline before changes show up in case numbers and hospitalizations, researchers said Wednesday.
A collaboration between the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the University of Kansas’ engineering school was launched this spring. It was expanded during the summer to 18 communities, with KU conducting weekly monitoring of Lawrence’s wastewater.
“The idea is we can’t test everybody in our community, but we can test the catchment to see if COVID is present in our community, if it’s increasing or decreasing,” said Belinda Sturm, a KU professor of civil, environmental and architectural engineering.
“It’s a way for us to make sure the community is aware of the prevalence of COVID in the community. So that we are not responding after the spike, but preparing before the spike,” she said.
Collection of samples from wastewater facilities in urban areas and from small town lagoons began in April. The researchers deployed a test for RNA, which harbors genetic information of viruses.
It’s unclear how communities might make use of the testing reports, but the city of Lawrence is expected to rely on it to prepare for shifts in demand for health resources, equipment or personnel.
“This study will help us make informed decisions moving forward,” said Sonia Jordan, director of informatics at the Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health. “The wastewater study is a great example of how our community is collaborating and using every tool in our toolbox to plan and prepare for fighting coronavirus.”
The presence of viral RNA in wastewater doesn’t mean that fluid is infectious. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t resolved whether the virus causes disease when people are exposed to untreated sewage or wastewater.
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