Science & Environment

Coronavirus wastewater surveillance expands to communities across Oregon

By Jes Burns (OPB)
Ashland, Ore. Aug. 27, 2020 1 p.m.

Wastewater testing is a relatively new science, but could provide critical information for measuring coronavirus spread in local communities.

A wastewater surveillance program designed to help communities detect and potentially track the coronavirus will be significantly expanding its footprint in Oregon.

The state is providing $1.2 million to researchers at Oregon State University to start analyzing samples from more than 40 wastewater treatment plants across the state.

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“The idea was to do greater Oregon with this survey,” said OSU environmental engineer Tyler Radniecki, adding all the plants chosen had to serve at least 6,000 people and be located outside the Portland metro area.

People infected with coronavirus shed the virus in their feces. When flushed, the virus enters the sewer system and flows with everything else to the wastewater plant for processing. Researchers have developed a way to detect the virus in water samples taken from sewers.

“Working in collaboration with the treatment plants, we’ll be getting samples from them once a week, checking those samples for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 [coronavirus] and the reporting the results back to [the Oregon Health Authority] … and county health authorities,” he said.

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This kind of wastewater disease testing is a relatively new science, which had previously been deployed in other countries to detect polio.

With coronavirus, there’s still quite a bit scientists don’t know about how much virus people shed, how long it’s viable in the sewer system, and exactly how sensitive the testing needs to be to accurately detect virus in the water. Consequently, researchers say wastewater surveillance cannot yet indicate how many people in a community are infected with the virus.

“What we hope to be able to identify is … if the COVID-19 virus is present in these communities and … over time as we continue to be able to sample every week, we’ll be able to see [if] the infection in that community getting stronger or weaker or staying stable over time,” Radniecki said.

This kind of information can be valuable to health officials and decision makers as they try to adjust social distancing restrictions in order to control the spread of COVID-19.

The OSU project has previously done focused testing in several communities where outbreaks were underway, including Newport, Bend and Hermiston.

The weekly testing will include these communities and add others from Brookings and Astoria to Klamath Falls, Ontario and The Dalles. With the OHA grant, the program is funded for 2 1/2 years.

Radniecki says they are sending out the sampling kits to participating treatment plants this week. He says he hopes to get the first round of water samples back in early September to begin analysis in the lab.

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