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FOCUS: Louisville wastewater used for early detection of COVID-19 in community

For more than a year, we've been probing into how wastewater has been used to track the spread of COVID-19.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — You probably don’t think of your sink as a crystal ball that helps scientists peer into the future of COVID-19. But since the start of the pandemic, the water that goes down your drains has become just that. 

Now, scientists are revealing how they’re using that water to show just how quickly one variant has dominated. 

“It's a little nerve-wracking that it's able to spread so quickly," Dr. Eric Rouchka, director of the University of Louisville's Bioinformatics Laboratory, said. 

It’s Rouchka's job to track the spread of what can be unpredictable: COVID-19. And he’s tracking infection rates using wastewater. We’re talking about everything from the water you flush to what drains from your tub: all the water that comes out of your home and ends up in the sewer system. 

“The first presence of Omicron was December 13," he said. 

He’s shown just how rapidly Omicron has overtaken Delta as the main COVID-19 variant in Louisville. 

“In some sites, it's up to 100% Omicron," he said.

RELATED: Omicron surge may have peaked in Louisville, mayor still urges caution

Rouchka has been studying wastewater from 17 sites around Jefferson County, testing for levels of COVID-19 and its variants

Back in early December, the Delta variant dominated. But fast-forward about a month, and things change quickly. 

The presence of the Delta variant in sewer water disappeared completely in some places. While in other locations around Jefferson County, it dropped to a fraction of a percentage point. Omicron, Rouchka said, has taken over. 

“And so in this particular instance, it was actually less clinically severe," he said. "But what if it would have been the other way around?”

Compared to the Delta variant, scientists have said Omicron is less dangerous, but Rouchka argues it continues to put a dangerous strain on our health care system.

“And then that's going to affect people coming into the hospital with other conditions not related to COVID," he said.

Rouchka said the strain on our hospital system is intensified with more contagious variants. He said scientists study wastewater to try and stay ahead of the spread of COVID-19, helping to inform people how to take precautions. 

PAULA VASAN

Contact reporter Paula Vasan at pvasan@whas11.com. Follow her on Twitter (@PaulaVasan) and Facebook.

Do you have a story you’d like our investigative team to look into? Email us at focus@whas11.com.

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