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Utah Officials Track COVID-19 Through Sewage Flows

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Friday, September 4, 2020   

PROVO, Utah - Utah public health officials are tracking COVID-19 by monitoring sewage flows into treatment plants across the state. And by analyzing the waste stream, they say they're making major progress in slowing the virus.

The Utah Department of Water Quality and Department of Health are using the system to collect data to show how and where the virus is spreading early enough to head off major outbreaks.

Jessica Weidhaas, an associate professor and environmental engineer at the University of Utah, said the science behind the data is fairly straightforward.

"Anything that makes humans sick, that they also pass in urine or feces, is potentially detectable in the wastewater," said Weidhaas.

After a pilot program, the state now monitors 42 sewage-treatment plants across Utah, and provides local health agencies with possible early warnings of new outbreaks. The system was developed by a team of researchers from three schools: Brigham Young, Utah State and the University of Utah.

Weidhaas said when the information is compiled, it gives local officials a map of where to more effectively deploy staff and resources in local communities and neighborhoods.

"A map of the exact extent of a sewer shed and the public health people could overlay, here's a number of people we know that confirm have COVID-19 within that area," said Weidhaas. "And we could see whether there were correlations between the wastewater signal and the number of people that were sick."

While there is no substitute for individual testing and contact tracing, Weidhaas said analyzing sewage flows is a cost-efficient way for officials to determine where to spend their limited resources to halt the spread of COVID-19.

"If I've got a city that doesn't have a lot of money to test each person individually, we can test the wastewater," said Weidhaas. "And we can provide confidence to those public health individuals there that if we don't detect the signal, there's likely almost no people that are ill in that community."

She added the Utah group's research is currently in peer review, to be published in the journal "natureresearch." The state also posts data from the program online at 'deq.utah.gov/water-quality.'


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