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Down the drain: Sewer water could be an early warning sign of COVID-19

Once a week, workers at Louisville’s Metropolitan Sewer District, or MSD, collect sewer water underground to better understand what’s going on above ground.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Could our sewer system be the answer to early detection of COVID-19? Many researchers think it could be, and they’re studying wastewater to try and stay ahead of outbreaks.

Once a week, workers at Louisville’s Metropolitan Sewer District, or MSD, collect sewer water underground to better understand what’s going on above ground.

“It’s a telltale sign of everything that comes from a household," said Daymond Talley, assistant director at Louisville MSD. "You know everything you wash that day to maybe what you all ate to potentially what medicines you’re taking can be detected in wastewater."

“In some places they’ve been able to precede outbreaks by as much as a week by looking in the wastewater in communities," said Ted Smith, a professor with UofL's Department of Medicine.

Ted Smith is a researcher at the University of Louisville. Since May, he and his team have been studying those water samples to try and stay ahead of outbreaks.

“This is potentially a really effective, cost-effective tool for communities to get a handle on where they are with this infection," he said. 

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FOCUS: Testing wastewater for COVID-19

In the next few weeks, he hopes to have data similar to what's coming out of Tempe, Arizona -- which shows levels of coronavirus detected in wastewater over time.

“As a researcher it feels good to be doing something in this fight against this pandemic," said Francis de los Reyes, a professor at North Carolina State University.

Reyes is doing similar research at North Carolina State University to track COVID-19 through wastewater.

“The idea is we’re going to pool our data together and cross check each other’s numbers," he said.

From Washington DC to Houston to Los Angeles, he said researchers are studying sewer water, with a goal of collaborating.

“So we may have a set of methods and insights that may cut across different cities," Reyes said. 

Right now, the research is still in its infancy. But over the next couple of months, many researchers predict wastewater testing will provide early warning of COVID-19, by a week or more, and track infection trends. It may allow cities to save money -- possibly millions of dollars a year -- on testing, determine infection rates in neighborhoods, and identify hotspots.

“If they see increases in certain parts of our community the city can decide to do something. Like increase public testing in those areas, change social practices in those areas," said Smith.

The wastewater testing at UofL is part of a much bigger project that also involves testing about 2,400 people every two months for coronavirus and its antibodies. By testing both people and wastewater, researchers hope to be able to better track the spread of the virus in Jefferson County, and be more prepared to fight it. 

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