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Public health experts are turning to wastewater in the fight against COVID-19

Published: Apr. 19, 2021 at 5:49 PM CDT
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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) -Nasal swabs aren’t the only way public health officials are able to track the amount of coronavirus in a community.

They’re turning to wastewater in the fight against the pandemic.

On any given day, between seven and eight million gallons of water flow through pipes and channels at the Eau Claire Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Before the process of converting the sewage into clean water begins, utilities chemists like Ty Fadness take samples.

“The samples that we get here are going to be well-mixed samples of the wastewater over 24 hours, so it’s an auto sampler that actually takes that sample,” Fadness said. “It’s basically an aggregate of all the households and businesses in that community.”

The community being measured here is made up of more than 80,000 people from Eau Claire, Altoona and the Town of Washington.

After collection, the samples are delivered to scientists at the Wisconsin State Lab of Hygiene.

Researcher Dagmara Antkiewicz said tracking COVID-19 through wastewater isn’t going to replace nasal swabs, but it’s a good way to get a community-wide snapshot.

“It’s easier to get larger part of the population tested quickly and cheaply,” Antkiewicz said. “We’re estimating we’re hitting 50% to 60% of population through wastewater.”

Data over such a large area is helping public health experts notice community-wide changes in the amount of the coronavirus present.

That means they can detect outbreaks faster than before.

Seventy wastewater treatment facilities across the state are participating in this program. Tracking COVID-19 in wastewater started in June of 2020. The state plans to continue this project through 2023 though on a smaller scale.

To see if your local wastewater treatment facility is part of the program or to see the results so far, click HERE.

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