Sewage provides alternative insight into COVID-19 surge direction

Jan 25, 2022, 10:59 PM | Updated: Jun 8, 2022, 4:17 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — With COVID-19 case counts appearing to be in a recent decline, those who watch a particular data set said Tuesday that data set is showing a few positive signs related to the latest surge.

Utah reported 6,600 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday, a number down more than 50 percent from the all-time-high of 13,539 cases reported 11 days earlier.

On that day, Jan. 14, health officials said unless someone had comorbidities or planned to visit someone at high risk, a symptomatic individual should assume COVID-19 and stay home.

So the decline in numbers comes with some inherent uncertainty, leading to the increasing importance of alternate data sets, like those drawn directly from Utahns’ raw sewage.

At the Utah Department of Health, wastewater surveillance program manager Nathan LaCross said though the stuff of raw sewage is a lagging indicator of the body, it’s an early indicator of pandemic trends.

Right now — as generally with sewage — he said the data appears mixed.

“There are a couple — and I do mean just a couple — areas where they’re seeing some nice decreasing trends,” LaCross said.

LaCross said generally in urban areas, the numbers appear to be plateauing.

“Those are many of the areas where the omicron surge first showed up, so they’re just a little bit ahead or a little bit further along in the course of that surge,” LaCross said. “However, there are still quite a few areas across the state where we’re seeing increasing trends, often very steep increasing trends, that don’t really show any signs yet of stopping.”

LaCross said the data is collected twice per week from 32 different facilities across the state, giving insight into roughly 88 percent of the state’s population.

“We’re able to get that information and use it to try to figure out what is happening in the community, what sort of case burden are we seeing,” he said.

While LaCross said there were some positive signs from the data, he underscored that could potentially change — even as soon as the next sampling — and he urged people to continue to use extreme caution with Utah not yet “out of the woods.”

“It’s tough, but we’ve just got to push through it and keep ourselves and our friends and our families safe,” LaCross said.

He also encouraged anyone to check out the sewage data for themselves at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality website.

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Sewage provides alternative insight into COVID-19 surge direction