Raw sewage may be the next step to tracking the spread of COVID-19, and Athens has joined among around 30 communities already participating in the program.
According to the Ohio Department of Health’s COVID-19 response website, a conglomerate of communities and universities, as well as the US and Ohio Environmental Protection Agencies and the Ohio Water Resources Center, that stretches across the state. These wastewater plants will be collection sites for raw sewage to allow scientists the opportunity to identify any presence of the virus in the samples.
Employees of the Athens Wastewater Treatment plant recently began to collect samples for this purpose, according to the plant’s manager, Lisa Agriesti.
“Once a week we ship a 24-hour composite sample from the wastewater plant to the Ohio State University,” she wrote in an email. “OSU is the one doing the testing which is described on the website. All we are doing is providing a sample, which they will then test and put results on the website.”
The ODH coronavirus site explains that increases in COVID-19 cases are typically tracked through testing of symptomatic individuals. This creates a lag in the data. Finding evidence of COVID-19 ribonucleic acid in the untreated sewage of communities could provide a way to predict a rise in cases, even if the individuals infected are asymptomatic.
“Community and public health leaders can use this early warning information to make decisions about protective actions to help limit further spread of the disease before cases begin to occur,” the ODH site stated.
Results for Athens are still pending, due to the lack of a data backlog. However, other locals, such as Columbus, show the trends of the viral gene copies in the local raw sewage. One of the closest wastewater plants reporting near Athens is the Lancaster Water Pollution Control Facility, which is reporting two data points: 14,000 viral gene copies found on Aug. 24, and 96,000 were found on Aug. 31.
The results are calculated to show a viral gene copy trend graph for each community. The amount of initial gene copies found is not significant to note, the ODH site warns. Instead, look at the increase in viral genes found.
“For example, an increase from 600 to 5,000 gene copies (a nearly 10-times increase) is more significant than an increase from 1,200 to 3,000 viral gene copies,” the site explained. “Because each community has different populations and different wastewater flow volumes, it is not appropriate to compare actual viral gene copy numbers between communities, but reviewing the trend in a specific community can be used to help understand whether cases or hospitalizations are likely to increase.”
The RNA strands in untreated sewage are non-infectious, the site further explained. The strands can be found in wastewater for as long as a week, and could help see a rise in cases earlier, thus preventing further spreads by allowing for officials to know more about the disease in their community.
“This will give anyone a chance to look and see where potential cases or outbreaks are occurring and could help give the Mayors or City Officials in those areas make decisions based off of results,” Agriesti explained.
All discharged water from a wastewater treatment plant has been treated to remove viruses and bacteria. The discharged water is monitored to meet state and federal discharge limits, and is safe for the community.