DHHS working to monitor COVID in sewage across state

LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) – In the fight against COVID-19, Nebraska health officials have used different tools to track cases and potential outbreaks.

One of the newer methods is to study wastewater, which experts say is not only useful now, but could be even more so in the future.

Nebraska is one of dozens of states participating in a CDC sewage study. The state has 13 participating sites across Nebraska that are collecting samples for use in this research. Some of the most studied are in Lancaster County.

Samples are taken from sewage sites and analyzed at labs across the state to track the virus.

“We learned that you can find it in your nose, in your nasal pharynx, in saliva,” said Nebraska state epidemiologist Dr. Matthew Donahue. “You might also find it in the sewers.”

The National Wastewater Surveillance System is used as an early virus detection tool. The researchers found they could track levels of Sars COV-2, the virus that causes COVID in solid waste. The CDC study showed that sewage can have traceable levels of the virus in someone, about a week before a test can detect it.

“At several sites, it appears to be between four days and two weeks where we see a change in sewage earlier than in people,” Dr. Donahue said. “But therein lies its greatest utility, right, hopefully we can use sewage monitoring as a good indicator of what’s next in people.”

Dr. Donahue said it’s not an entirely new practice; Similar research has already been done to track viruses like polio, but the work from this study has the potential to be used on other viruses in the future.

“We are building this wastewater monitoring for Sars-COV 2, for COVID-19,” Dr. Donahue said. “But through these partnerships, we’re developing a protocol, we’re identifying statewide sewage monitoring logistics and operations, and it has multiple potential future uses.”

Research can also be used to track down those who might be asymptomatic to get a better idea of ​​what case rates in communities might look like, even for those who don’t have a positive test on record.

“People can shed the virus when they have mild symptoms before they even think about going for a test when we might not know they’re positive otherwise,” Dr Donahue said. “So it’s in the potential predictability that wastewater can give us a trend before we can see that trend happening in people.”

Much of this research is also carried out with the help of those at UNL who are already working in a research capacity as well as students.

Dr. Donahue said all funding for the project comes from the CDC, until at least 2024.

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