Testing wastewater for viruses is not a new procedure. It has been used in the past to detect polio outbreaks. More recently, universities successfully found coronavirus in campus sewage and managed to prevent COVID-10 catastrophes in dorms.
According to The Washington Post, the University of Arizona elected to test sewage from all 20 of its residence halls. A wastewater sample from one of the dorms came back positive and two asymptomatic students who lived in that dorm also tested positive for the virus and were quickly quarantined, preventing what could have been a major outbreak.
“You think about if we had missed it, if we waited until they became symptomatic and they stayed in that dorm for days, a week, or the whole incubation period, how many other people would have been affected,” said Dr. Richard Carmona, former U.S. surgeon general, who was appointed to lead school’s reentry program, according to the Post.
Now, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have initiated the National Wastewater Surveillance System in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The CDC says data from wastewater testing will assist current COVID-19 surveillance systems by providing efficient community pooled samples and identifying potential COVID-19 potential hotspots where clinical testing is underutilized or unavailable.
Wastewater, also called sewage, includes water from households, buildings as well as water from non-housheold sources such as rainwater and industrial use.
According to Politico, setting up a national wastewater surveillance program early on in the pandemic could have prevented major flareups, says David Larsen a public health official at Syracuse University.
“My kids would be in school right now,” he said. “Our economy would not have tanked the way it has.”
Larsen estimates twice-weekly tests in every ZIP code would cost the government $3 billion annually, or approximately $10 per person annually.
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