Using sewage samples to predict Covid-19 cases in State College; PSU tests campus & community sewage to forecast spikes or falls in Covid-19

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. (WTAJ)–Penn State researchers believe they have found a new way to predict if Covid-19 cases will rise or fall on Main Campus and in the greater State College community.

What’s determining the Covid case prediction? The waste flowing to local sewers.

Scientists can detect Covid-19 through human fecal matter.

With the ability to identify Covid in sewage, researchers at Penn State began sampling solid waste in July at two treatment facilities in Centre County: The University’s Wastewater Treatment Plant (to study waste from PSU’s campus and downtown State College) and The University Area Joint Authority (to study waste from communities in the greater State College Area)

“The sewage lines start to become a way to see how much virus there is in different locations, whether it’s rising or falling,” said Dr. Andrew Read, Penn State’s Director of the Huck Institute of Life Sciences.

During the first month of research, sewage samples were taken every week. Once Penn State students returned to campus, researchers started taking daily samples.

What they found: In many cases the Coronavirus is present in an areas sewage days before that location sees a spike Covid cases.

“We were the first to see that the virus was on campus. So when the students first came back, we got the first hard data that the virus had appear. Since then, it’s been rising pretty steadily–along with cases,” Dr. Read said.

But, he added that recent sewage samples from University Park show that the virus is stabilizing, which could predict that Covid case numbers will not drastically spike much more on PSU’s campus.

Dr. Read also said that over the last 10 days, sewage samples from the State College community show a slight decline in Covid-19—which could predict a slight case decline in the future.

However, Dr. Read said there are still some unknowns, like exactly how far ahead sewage data is compared to Covid-19 test data–something researchers are working to learn.

Scientists do know that individuals with Covid-19 symptoms will show the virus in their feces. However, it’s unknown how prevalent the virus is in the waste of asymptomatic individuals, or those with mild Covid-19 symptoms.

Measuring sewage from specified buildings/street blocks to pinpoint Covid patterns

Currently, PSU researchers are in the process of sampling sewage from more specific locations so they can pinpoint Covid-19 case predictions to exact areas.

They are working to gather sewage samples isolating East Halls and West Halls on campus, and also different blocks of College Avenue, including the downtown area through to fraternity and sorority houses, and apartments in the Beaver Canyon area.

“If we can get the whole area, we might be able to say which particular locations, which city blocks, or which dorm rooms are turning up first… This is one way to find them before you see them in a clinic with sick people,” Dr. Read said.

He added that this method could prove effective long into the future to track small Covid outbreaks once a vaccine is developed.

Are there concerns that Covid-19 may spread through treated water?

Dr. Read said there is no evidence that Covid-19 spreads through waste water, since enough detergents are used in the treatment process to kill the virus.

“Once the water is cleaned, there are no virus particles in it—there is no evidence that that the waste water itself in infectious,” Dr. Read said.

Affordability of testing sewage for Covid-19

Dr. Read said another benefit to this testing is its affordability and efficiency.

“With a single water sampling, we get samples for thousands of people. Immediately there’s a cost savings there. You don’t need to test thousands of individuals to get the coverage we do. Once you’ve got the initial costs paid for, it’s pretty cheap to do the testing from there. It’s roughly the same price as one regular test for a single individual—but we can do thousands,” Dr. Read said.

Utiling test results

Dr. Read said the daily sewage samples from University Park and the State College community are given to Penn State leadership every day.

Since this data helps to potentially predict future Covid case numbers, PSU leaders are using it to help decide if in-person classes should continue.

Bonus details in video below:

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