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COVID-19 wastewater screening project underway at UWEC

A team of students in the School of Public Health have been sampling wastewater at the universities two largest dorms independently for months all in efforts to combat COVID-19.
Published: Dec. 8, 2021 at 5:21 AM CST
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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) -Twice a week you can find research students Laura Horstman and Logan Anderson collecting samples from the depths of Towers North and South.

“Now this wastewater can be anything from shower water, bath water, to toilet water,” says UWEC pre-med student Logan Anderson.

A full 24-hour sample for the accurate representation of an entire day. Start to finish?

“Yeah we definitely have the system down,” thirty minutes tops, Horstman laughs.

Sealed up and ready for analysis the samples get sent to a lab down in Madison where the waste water will be screened for any presence of COVID RNA.

“Specifically measuring the RNA and gene copies per liter so they use a PCR test,” Anderson explains.

Then mapping that data for possible use as a reliable predicter for covid-19 outbreaks.

“We work in Accel and create graphs of the positive cases that we actually know about all over campus and we plot that versus our positive wastewater samples that we receive from Madison, so we’re trying to see if there’s any correlation between the two,” Anderson says. “If there’s a spike in positive cases and see if there’s any latency period between the positive cases and the positive wastewater.”

The students are working under the direction of Crispin Pierce professor of public health and environmental studies at the university.

With work underway since August, Pierce says the results have only begun to scratch the surface.

“The idea behind our sampling is if we can detect the RNA or the genetic material of a virus or a bacterium in wastewater we can then implement testing, vaccination and even quarantining where we need to,” Pierce says.

Adding that positive cases should peak sooner in wastewater than people displaying signs of sickness, but thus far, hasn’t been the case.

“We don’t see a correlation, one is the low number of cases on campus, the other is the appearance of RNA in the wastewater, we thought it would pop up sooner but it didn’t it tended to last longer, so even after students were no longer COVID-19 positive we were finding the COVID RNA in their wastewater.

None-the-less Pierce says these kinds of negative scientific findings are just as important as positive ones in the public health field for his students.

“I also really like looking at the data side of it, because I collect the samples and then look back on what I’m doing, compare the numbers between positive cases, what we’re measuring trying to find correlations between that,” says Horstman a second year, Kinesiology major at UWEC.

A first of its kind project for the Blugolds, and a unique project rooted in hands-on work.

This is just one of the three research project Dr. Pierce says his students are working on to further protect the Eau Claire community from the virus.

The other two involve testing to see if the air ventilation systems are adequate in reducing COVID transmission through aerosols on campus and at a local children’s nature center.

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