Utah Scientists Tracking Coronavirus Spikes, Declines Through Sewage

Jul 27, 2020, 8:19 PM | Updated: Jul 13, 2023, 9:57 am

SALT LAKE CITY — Scientists in Utah this summer discovered they can track the spread of COVID-19 in our sewage. Now, they are using that data to identify trends and even alert communities to the likelihood of the virus.

Since April, scientists with the Utah Division of Water Quality, the University of Utah, Brigham Young University and Utah State University have worked together on this project.

They have tracked the coronavirus at incoming wastewater facilities across the state.

“We’re starting to see some interesting trends,” said Jared Mendenhall, spokesperson for Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

Not long after COVID-19 arrived in Utah, university and state researchers started testing incoming wastewater for the coronavirus at the inlets of 10 treatment plants statewide. They found the stuff Utahns flush away can help them estimate the prevalence of infection in a community without testing everyone.

“We were able to show that it was an effective way to monitor. The hope was that you would always be able to detect a surge or something new coming in,” said Mendenhall.

After the conclusion of the successful pilot program, the state expanded the wastewater sampling to 40 treatment facilities across the state.

“You can see where the trends are and how the virus is moving around in the state,” said Mendenhall. “The sampling is ongoing at these 40 facilities. That covers about 80 percent of Utah’s population, so we’re getting a really big picture.”

The results are being shared online.

In Salt Lake County, the data reflects the positive impact of wearing masks. At the three main wastewater treatment plants that receive Salt Lake County sewage, coronavirus concentrations have been consistently among the highest in the state. But a decline in recent weeks tells them something important.

“We’re also able to use this as a tool to start to see where the virus is receding,” Mendenhall said.

In the five weeks since that mandate started, scientists have measured a decrease in the coronavirus in Salt Lake County wastewater.

“Last week, we also saw a little spike happen out in Daggett County at Dutch John,” said Mendenhall.

Previously, there had not been any laboratory-confirmed cases in that area, so county health officials were alerted to the possibility of coronavirus cases in the community.

“They can start taking steps to address the spread of the virus in the Dutch John area,” Mendenhall said.

Right now, he said, they are still discovering the value of the data.

“This is a tool, just as we had hoped, that health officials can use to monitor what’s going on,” he said. “You get this big picture of what’s happening in the community without having to test everybody.”

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Utah Scientists Tracking Coronavirus Spikes, Declines Through Sewage