DEFIANCE, Ohio (WANE) – A statewide effort in Ohio to track COVID-19 through fecal matter has expanded to Defiance. The state department has started collecting samples from the city’s water pollution control treatment plant.
“People start shedding the virus in their feces pretty quickly after they’re infected and they start shedding the virus before they even start having symptoms,” Rebecca Fugitt told WANE 15. “When they use the restroom, they excrete the waste that contains the virus and it’s collected at the wastewater treatment plants. You can monitor there. This data that is collected there monitoring for gene copies can be used as a potential leading indicator of a disease in a community.”
The process to track COVID-19 cases through wastewater was first attempted in Europe, according to the Ohio Department of Health’s assistant chief of the Bureau of Environmental Health and Radiation Protection. The CDC then established the National Wastewater Surveillance System.
While the process of testing wastewater doesn’t target a single household, it can give a picture of a large amount of cases in a community.
“People can choose whether or not they want to be tested,” Fugitt said. “So, it provides a representative picture of what is going on in the community without looking looking at any individual households.”
The amount of potential COVID-19 cases in a community is found through an equation of fragments of the virus in a one-liter sample of wastewater and the amount of wastewater that has been processed at the plant. A rapid increase in the amount of COVID-19 gene copies could show a rapid increase of the coronavirus in the area.
“That’s when we’re developing messaging and information to provide to communities to say maybe you start teaching about social distancing, hand washing, avoiding crowded places and wearing masks,” Fugitt added. “Or you want to target additional pop-up testing in that community because you know that cases may be imminent. Maybe you alert healthcare providers in that community so they can be prepared for potential cases.”
Wastewater testing was not invented during the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments have sampled water to get an idea of what is in waste in other situations.
“Over the last few years, cities have analyzed their waste water for chemical markers like opioids,” Fugitt said. “There is, I think, an increasing amount of interest in using monitoring of waste water as a potential tool to understand things that may be happening in the community, whether it’s chemical use or whether it’s viral.”
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