VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — While many people may think they have never participated in a test for COVID-19 — if you’ve flushed a toilet in Hampton Roads since March — you likely have.
Each week, samples of sewage are taken at local wastewater treatment plants in parts of Hampton Roads and tested for the presence of the virus.
Scientists say the data collected, can be used to predict outbreaks and “hot spots” before more traditional testing methods.
Based on recent data, trends are not going in the right direction.
“Our wastewater signals right now are higher than they were during our last wave in July,” said Raul Gonzalez, an environmental scientist with the Hampton Roads Sanitation District.
Gonzalez and his colleagues at HRSD were the first in the state to start monitoring the coronavirus through wastewater-based epidemiology.
To come to their findings, the wastewater samples from the different plants are taken to laboratories where genetic material — known as RNA — is extracted. RNA shows the virus and an infected person will have that in their stool, according to Gonzalez.
Based upon of the concentration of the virus found in wastewater sample, Gonzalez said conclusions can be drawn the infection rate of a certain region. HRSD knows which community sewer systems lead to which plants.
“We’re sampling the entire community at once,” Gonzalez said. “We get an idea of whether the COVID-19 are increasing, whether they’re going down, whether they are just plateauing. Right now by the way, we’re definitely increasing.”
RNA shows up sooner after infection in feces than other testing methods and can also present in those who will eventually show symptoms and also in those who won’t.
The HRSD findings are passed off to local health departments as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in order to help them predicts where case numbers will soon be on the rise. The data can also be used to warn city officials and medical providers in advance that they need to prepare for an influx of patients.
“That’s really where some of the strength of this work comes in,” Gonzalez said.
The findings can be viewed by anyone, as they are posted online through a partnership with the Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences at the University of Notre Dame and the Division of Environmental Health Sciences College of Public Health at Ohio State University.
The studies are also occurring in Charlottesville, Stafford County and in other parts of the country. Gonzalez hopes it is eventually expanded statewide.
He said the testing appears to carry less risk for those performing them, as research shows the body’s colon disinfects it and inactivates the virus.
“It feels great to be able to say I was able to have a part of a response to this pandemic,” Gonzalez said. “This is helping our community.”
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