VDH using sewage to predict COVID-19 outbreaks


ROANOKE, Va. (WFXR) — The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) is monitoring sewage in several parts of the Commonwealth in an effort to predict future outbreaks of the coronavirus.

Wastewater surveillance is already occurring at the Roanoke Regional Water Pollution Control Plant on Brownlee Avenue SE. Workers use a vacuum-like machine with a 12-foot hose and strainer attached to it to suction a sample of untreated wastewater as it flows through the system.

“Your body actually digests the virus and kills it, but you still release the genetic material of the virus and that’s what we’re picking up in our samples,” said Lacy Burnette, operations manager for the water pollution control plant.

Samples are collected every 15 minutes over a 24-hour period into a 10-liter jar surrounded by ice. Then, someone with the the Radford Carilion Clinic picks up the samples and brings them to the facility to be tested for traces of the coronavirus.

“I think the science is there to really help folks out. And the ultimate goal is to keep people from getting sick,” said Burnette.

“We see that presence of that virus before it shows up in any testing clinics or in any hospital testing data,” said Sarah Baumgardner, director of public relations for the Western Virginia Water Authority. “That information can be shared with the hospitals and say we’re seeing a spike and in the next five to seven days, you’re going to see an influx of people coming in who are sick with COVID.”

Twenty-five wastewater monitoring sites are deployed across the Commonwealth. Health experts say this type of testing is not new. In fact, sewage surveillance has been used in other countries to monitor polio outbreaks.

Baumgardner says they have been testing wastewater for signs of COVID-19 at the Roanoke Regional Water Pollution Control Plant since Spring 2020.

However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) gave the VDH grant money on Aug. 1, allowing the health department to initiate its own comprehensive study.

“We are trying to get a good coverage throughout the state for the presence of viral load in the wastewater,” said Rekha Singh, manager of Virginia’s Wastewater Surveillance System.

“We started with doing the basic viral testing and that’s what we have initiated already. The next piece of this is to start variant monitoring,” said Dr. Marcia Degen, director of Virginia’s Wastewater Surveillance System.

Wastewater surveillance gives a snapshot of the health of the people in the community. When it comes to COVID-19 outbreaks, VDH’s ultimate goal is to create a dashboard for the public to see which areas are seeing a spike of the virus.

“This is a new type of science that helps our community,” said Baumgardner. “For the first time, science has kind of caught up and we’re able to see particles that are so tiny — parts per billion, parts per trillion.”

Baumgardner adds that the method is also used to detect the presence of chemicals, drugs, pharmaceuticals, and other viruses.

“It’s been a great experience. It really brings a light onto wastewater that I don’t think I’ve ever imagined,” said Burnette.

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