CORONAVIRUS

Wastewater monitoring for COVID-19 is picking up steam across the US

Apr 4, 2022, 12:40 PM | Updated: Jun 8, 2022, 3:17 pm

A lab technician tests wastewater samples from around the United States in Cambridge, Massachusetts...

A lab technician tests wastewater samples from around the United States in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on February 22. Interest in using wastewater surveillance to monitor COVID-19 continues to grow. (Allison Dinner/Reuters)

(Allison Dinner/Reuters)

(CNN) — Interest in using wastewater surveillance to monitor COVID-19 continues to grow in the United States, as the values of the early detection tool come into clearer focus.

In September 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched the National Wastewater Surveillance System, investing millions of dollars in an effort to coordinate and build upon programs that track coronavirus in samples collected in sewage systems.

Participation in the program has risen steadily since launch. But what’s driving interest now — and has led to the biggest bump yet — is the change in clinical testing strategies across the US, said Amy Kirby, a microbiologist who leads the CDC’s wastewater program.

With the growing prevalence of at-home COVID-19 tests and the public’s waning interest in testing in general, less case data is being officially reported. Local health departments are “recognizing that clinical surveillance isn’t going to have as much information about what’s going on in the community,” she said.

“Wastewater is a non-intrusive way to still have that early and reliable information of what’s going on in your community,” Kirby said.

The CDC launched a national public dashboard tracking COVID-19 wastewater data in February, and the number of participating sites has risen from about 400 to nearly 700 sites in the two months since.

In that same time, the daily average of reported COVID-19 tests dropped by two-thirds, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The CDC’s wastewater program has enough money to sufficiently cover programs for all 50 states and 14 additional jurisdictions, with funding guaranteed through 2025.

There are 33 states currently funded through the agency’s epidemiology and laboratory capacity cooperative agreement — and another 14 that have a commercial testing contract — but the CDC hopes that all 50 states will be represented in the network by next year. Grant applications are now in process for 2023 funding.

Wastewater surveillance is not a new public health tool, but it was far from mainstream before COVID-19.

Local health departments are still figuring out how to best make use of this tool. They have questions about how to partner with utility companies to collect samples in the first place, as well as the best way to analyze and interpret the resulting data and more, said Deise Galan, lead analyst for the National Association of County and City Health Officials’ public health preparedness program.

Enough questions from members have poured in that NACCHO recently launched a mentorship program that has so far matched one local jurisdiction with lots of experience in wastewater surveillance to a couple of others that are just getting started.

About a dozen local health departments applied to be part of this mentorship program, and it has sparked the interest of many more that have reached out to learn more.

“It’s become something that has not only caught the desire of the local health officials, but also their elected officials as something that they can really implement and use not only for SARS-CoV-2, but for other pathogens as well,” Galan said.

Wastewater is a hyper-local surveillance tool, which only provides information about the specific community that is served by the participating wastewater treatment plant. But experts say there is clear value in bringing as many sites on board as possible.

“It’s both a strength that we get really good information about that community, but also a weakness because we need to get as many wastewater systems as we can doing this testing so that we get a more complete picture,” Kirby said.

It took the CDC about a year and a half — from the launch of the program in September 2020 until February 2022 — to work through how to best standardize and present the data they’d been collecting into a national dashboard.

Right now, data on the dashboard is limited. A map shows the relative change in coronavirus detection levels over a single 15-day period, with earlier trends in percent change only available through downloading a large data set.

But in the coming weeks, the CDC plans to update their national wastewater dashboard with more information about not just how levels change week-to-week, but how the absolute level of coronavirus detected in a sewershed compares to other points in the pandemic. They also plan to include an option to visualize trends over time for each site.

“Our focus is on using this system as an early warning of increases in the community. And we want that early warning system to be as early and as sensitive as it can be,” Kirby said.

This high-sensitivity can create “noise” in the system, she said. But with variants such as BA.2 picking in the U.S. and others potentially looming over the horizon, they’d rather play it extra safe.

“We are working closely with our state and local public health officials to make sure that they are interpreting the data correctly to answer their questions. We’re monitoring those increases until we are either convinced they are just noise or see that they are real increases and we need to move on them.”

More participants bring more opportunities to share knowledge about a public health tool that many are just starting to become familiar with, too.

“Why are we going to reinvent the wheel, if there are other places that have been able to successfully implement this program?” Galan said. “At the local level, we can have that peer-to peer-sharing and collection of best practice.”

Putting it all on a national dashboard allows local health departments to explore what’s happening in similar places, said Chelsea Gridley-Smith, director of environmental health at NACCHO.

“Local health departments know who they see as peers. So, a rural county may look to Chicago for guidance, but not for similarities. But if they can compare themselves to another rural county, they might be able to find more and more programs like themselves,” she said.

“Those are the places where having everything compiled in a CDC location allows us to explore the possibility for expanding partnership outside of just one state with the similarities around county size and jurisdiction size and population type and infrastructure set-up.”


The-CNN-Wire
™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

KSL 5 TV Live

Coronavirus

Deer Creek Reservoir...

Alex Cabrero

State parks expecting another record visitation year, hiring more workers

It didn't matter how cold or snowy it was at Deer Creek State Park Friday afternoon. Nothing was going to stop Leonard Sawyer from taking his boat out to do a little fishing.

17 days ago

FILE —  Respiratory virus illness activity continues to increase across the US.
(Joe Burbank/Orl...

Emma Benson

‘Not viruses to mess around with’: Experts urge caution during ongoing ‘tripledemic’

Experts say though not as severe as last year, this winter we're seeing another "tripledemic" – rising cases of COVID-19, flu and RSV in Utah.

2 months ago

FILE - COVID-19 antigen home tests. (AP Photo/Patrick Sison, File)Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS...

Emma Benson

‘The ICUs are full:’ Keep yourself and others healthy this holiday

It's time for holiday gatherings, but with more people around us comes a greater risk of getting sick.

2 months ago

Julianna Preece goes through the mountain of medical documents she's acquired for her health condit...

Lauren Steinbrecher

Herriman couple is suing CVS, says 5x Covid vaccine dose mistake caused health problems

A couple is suing a Utah CVS vaccination clinic, saying a nurse’s mistake led to the wife receiving five times the normal COVID-19 vaccine dose and caused serious health issues she’s still dealing with today.

3 months ago

FILE - COVID-19 antigen home tests. (AP Photo/Patrick Sison, File)Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS...

Associated Press

More free COVID-19 tests from the government are available for home delivery through the mail

Americans can order more free COVID-19 tests online for home delivery.

3 months ago

FILE - Doses of the anti-viral drug Paxlovid are displayed in New York, Aug. 1, 2022. The COVID-19 ...

Amanda Seitz, Associated Press

COVID-19 treatments to enter the market with a hefty price tag

The COVID-19 treatments millions of have taken for free from the federal government will enter the private market next week with a hefty price tag.

4 months ago

Sponsored Articles

Modern chandelier hanging from a white slanted ceiling with windows in the backgruond...

Lighting Design

Light Up Your Home With These Top Lighting Trends for 2024

Check out the latest lighting design trends for 2024 and tips on how you can incorporate them into your home.

Technician woman fixing hardware of desktop computer. Close up....

PC Laptops

Tips for Hassle-Free Computer Repairs

Experiencing a glitch in your computer can be frustrating, but with these tips you can have your computer repaired without the stress.

Close up of finger on keyboard button with number 11 logo...

PC Laptops

7 Reasons Why You Should Upgrade Your Laptop to Windows 11

Explore the benefits of upgrading to Windows 11 for a smoother, more secure, and feature-packed computing experience.

Stylish room interior with beautiful Christmas tree and decorative fireplace...

Lighting Design

Create a Festive Home with Our Easy-to-Follow Holiday Prep Guide

Get ready for festive celebrations! Discover expert tips to prepare your home for the holidays, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere for unforgettable moments.

Battery low message on mobile device screen. Internet and technology concept...

PC Laptops

9 Tips to Get More Power Out of Your Laptop Battery

Get more power out of your laptop battery and help it last longer by implementing some of these tips from our guide.

Users display warnings about the use of artificial intelligence (AI), access to malicious software ...

Les Olson

How to Stay Safe from Cybersecurity Threats

Read our tips for reading for how to respond to rising cybersecurity threats in 2023 and beyond to keep yourself and your company safe.

Wastewater monitoring for COVID-19 is picking up steam across the US