A program piloted in Cache Valley to track coronavirus levels in sewage has now expanded statewide, and an online site has been set up for both researchers and the public to view the data.
Additionally, a plan is being developed to monitor virus levels in sewage at Utah State University to provide an early indication of trends that could affect how the school deals with coronavirus.
The analysis of human waste to detect COVID-19 infection levels in a population has been touted as a major scientific breakthrough since it provides a picture of viral spread a week or more before the spread shows up in human test results. The early warning could assist local health authorities in deploying resources or seeking to modify public behavior to reduce viral transmission.
The initial test of the program this spring by the Utah Division of Water Quality involved treatment plants in 10 Utah communities, including Logan and Hyrum.
As it happened, Hyrum experienced a major coronavirus spike during the pilot program, and this was seen in the sewage data before human test results showed the rise.
The implications of these dramatic findings were not lost on the researchers involved, and testing has now been set up at 42 sewage treatment plants in Utah. The results — updated regularly and displayed in charts alongside confirmed COVID case counts — can be found on the DEQ website or by clicking on this link: https://bit.ly/3fSqkb7.
“Our primary audience, of course, is health officials,” said DEQ senior scientist Jeff Ostermiller, a Logan resident who has played a key role in the research. “We’re hoping this can be one line of evidence among many that can be used to guide decisions, but we absolutely want the public to have the data available to them as quickly as we could make it available.”
Non-scientists visiting the site might be confused about the information shown on the charts. The numbers displayed with each sewage data point are derived from a complex formula involving virus “markers” found in human RNA and do not indicate numbers of infected people, as a casual observer might assume. Ostermiller said researchers are still trying to develop a way to translate the RNA results into case-count estimates.
Also, visitors should be aware the recorded COVID-19 case counts for each community do not go above zero on the charts until the total reaches at least five cases.
Among the DEQ’s collaborators on the sewage-testing project is USU biological engineering professor Keith Roper, who is now exploring a testing program at the university.
“Keith is doing a lot of really great work with Utah State University and trying to get some baseline information at dorms and the like, so when students come back we can start looking for any changes in infections that might occur,” Ostermiller said.
Elsewhere in Utah, data derived from sewage testing has provided some revealing glimpses at how COVID-19 is moving through communities.
“We’ve had a couple of interesting things that we’ve noted,” Ostermiller said. “Daggett County, for instance, hasn’t had any known cases yet … but we did see moderately high counts in their wastewater, which suggests that people who are there as tourists or are traveling through the area are actually infected even though the citizens are not yet, which could help maybe guide how people protect themselves while interacting with tourists.”
Daggett County is home to the southern stretches of Flaming Gorge Reservoir and is a popular boating and fishing destination.
Ostermiller also noted that sewage data clearly telegraphed a drop in COVID-19 levels in Salt Lake City following the town’s face-mask mandate, which was soon followed by lower case counts.
On the use of protective masks, the DEQ scientist noted, “There’s an increasing body of evidence that suggests that it’s an effective way of getting things under control. I think the message is that we’ve been doing a good job and are being diligent here (in Utah), and we’re starting to see things level off a little bit.”