What Monitoring Wastewater Can Tell Ohioans About COVID-19's Spread

Sep 29, 2020
Originally published on October 1, 2020 6:26 am

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has many data points to consider when looking at how the novel coronavirus is spreading throughout the state – the number of deaths, hospitalizations, and ICU admissions chief among them. But the state now has a new tool in its fight against the virus: wastewater.

That means health officials are studying sewer water for "gene copies" of the virus, as there is evidence that even asymptomatic persons can shed the virus into wastewater. This can help state health officials study trends and provide a heads up to local officials on any possible surges of cases in one particular area.

Calling it an "exciting project," DeWine welcomed the Assistant Chief at the Bureau of Environmental Health Rebecca Fugate to his Tuesday briefing to provide more details.

So, why wastewater?

"Because people start to shed the virus early when infected, a significant, sustained increase in these gene fragments found in wastewater can be an early warning sign of a pending increase of a specific area's COVID-19 cases, and could point to potential hotspots for community spread," she explained. "Having this information gives communities an opportunity to act proactively to prevent outbreaks."

Thirty-six cities, including Mansfield, Toledo and Akron, are currently being monitored, and the bureau hopes to add 25 more within the next month.

Fugate said that wastewater data can predict a rise in cases 3-7 days before they are reported.

"We're monitoring a number of sites bi-weekly now … so that we are able to provide that 3-7 day lead indicator of disease," Fugate said. "And then when we see this information, we alert health officials and utilities of any sustained upticks in their communities."  

That alert also includes coordinated efforts on contact tracing and pop-up testing.

As WVXU previously reported, the EPA since May has been studying samples from Cincinnati's Metropolitan Sewer District. During the governor's Tuesday coronavirus briefing, Director of Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Annette Chambers-Smith revealed the EPA had also reached out to her to do the same.

"They started in June collecting wastewater at one prison and a short time later OSU started collecting wastewater numbers in three prisons, and what we saw was some correlation," she said.

Since then she's decided to test every prison every week and that's helped provide an "an early warning system" to help the department determine such things as how many cohorts can be together at one time and whether or not to allow visitors.

Gov. DeWine on Tuesday reported 1,105 new cases, which is above the state's average of 1,000. He added that in the last 24 hours the state has seen 37 deaths, 106 hospitalizations and 13 ICU admissions.

"Those numbers are up; we assume they smooth out as you take (in) all seven days," he said. "If you look at the 21-day average this is something we'll have to keep our eye on."

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