You can now see how much COVID-19 virus is in your community’s wastewater

Staying ahead of the COVID-19 virus is one of the best ways to finally put the pandemic behind us. And over the past two years we have shown that we need all the tools to detect cases and predict as accurately as possible when and where peaks can occur.

One method — tracking the virus spread by infected people by analyzing wastewater — has shown a promising way to achieve that. Anywhere from 40% to 80% of people infected with COVID-19 excrete viral genetic material in their feces; studies have shown that monitoring wastewater for signs of SARS-CoV-2 can be an early indicator of when the number of cases is increasing, or even if a new variant is starting to dominate. Genetic sequencing of wastewater samples can show signs of virus days before the test results can, as people are often not tested until they experience symptoms. Wastewater is a useful source of information because it passively captures so much data, says Amy Kirby, program leader of the National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS) at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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“The data is uniquely powerful because it captures the presence of infections in people with and without symptoms, and is not affected by access to health care or the availability of clinical tests,” she told reporters Feb. 4. CDC’s COVID-19 data tracker. It is standardized so that people can compare information between different states or even different provinces. Until now, those states and provinces collected and analyzed data themselves.

Read more: Human waste could be the next big weapon in coping with COVID-19

Tracking SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater reveals an increase in the virus, which could give communities a warning when the number of cases begins to increase and help them prepare for increased demand for hospital and community health services. For example, if virus levels in wastewater increase, local health officials can deploy more mobile testing units in areas where infections are increasing, helping people know if and when to take stronger mitigation measures.

The CDC’s NWSS system was created this past September specifically to monitor SARS-CoV-2; Kirby said that although the idea has been studied for years, it took COVID-19 to validate the method. Currently, 37 states and four cities are part of the NWSS and carry their data in the network. Kirby expects hundreds of other sites to add their data in the coming weeks. CDC is working with local sewers and health departments to update the data to reflect changes in virus levels over the past 15 days.

Kirby notes that the strength of the tracking is only as good as the depth of the sample locations. She expects that the more sites that sign up and provide data, the stronger and more useful the trends will be. “Wastewater monitoring is best used in conjunction with case-based surveillance to maximize its value,” she said. “We’ve already seen examples of cities and counties using wastewater monitoring to better understand the progression of infections. Now more communities are using the tool to guide public health decision-making.”

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