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Stories and information in our region on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Can What We Flush Predict The Next COVID Outbreak?

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Public health officials may be able to predict the next outbreak of COVID-19 through clues in a surprising source: raw sewage. That’s according to a new study from Yale and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

Scientists dug through samples of sludge from a wastewater treatment plant that serves New Haven and the surrounding towns to see if they could test it for COVID-19.

“There are a lot of viruses that often can be detected in sewage,” says Doug Brackney with the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

The World Health Organization checks for polio in sewage streams in the developing world to see if the disease is cropping up in small towns or villages. Scientists around the world have been wondering if COVID-19 works the same way.

“We thought it’d be nice if we were able to detect it in wastewater,” said Yale professor Jordan Pecchia, lead author on the study. “Not only are we able to detect it, but it tracks what we would think of as the traditional epidemiology curve.”

You know, that curve we’re all supposed to flatten.

“Not only are we able to track it, but we’re able to shift the time forward a little bit. So we get our data about five to seven days before you get the testing data.”

And those five to seven days can be critical. It allows public health officials to predict a COVID-19 outbreak well before individual testing catches it. Imagine if scientists were able to do this testing at wastewater treatment plants across the whole state.

“We’d love to scale it. We’d love to do it statewide,” says Pecchia. He also says that it’d be relatively inexpensive.

“You have to go and engage other treatment facilities in big cities like Hartford, Bridgeport, Stamford and start sampling their wastewater.”

Pecchia says it wouldn’t replace testing and contact tracing. Those tried-and-true methods are still the best way to prevent the individual spread of the virus from person-to-person. But it could augment them on a community-wide level.

“I think this is in particular a critical time because the outbreak has receded a bit in Connecticut and that coincides with the reopening of Connecticut. And so people are out more. There’s now maybe a greater risk of transmission than when we were under lockdown.”

“It’s going to be really interesting to follow the sludge.”

That’s researcher Doug Brackney again. He says if researchers start to notice rates of COVID-19 increase in sewage, they’ll know community transmission is increasing.

“It’s definitely like a canary in a coal mine. Hopefully before it gets way out of control, we can start saying look, we might need to start putting into place some of these restrictions again to curtail a second or third wave.”

Researchers say next they’ll examine the gene sequences of COVID-19 in wastewater, which they say could tell them a lot more about how the virus spreads.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.
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