SALT LAKE CITY – Scientists are using what is flushed down the toilet to locate potential spikes of the coronavirus in Utah.
The Utah Department of Environmental Quality teamed up with 10 wastewater sites and researchers at Brigham Young University, Utah State University and the University of Utah to test for the prevalence of the genetic makeup of COVID-19 in sewage.
“You can think of sewer water as basically an integrated sample of the city because everybody is contributing to that water,” said Erica Gaddis, the director of the Division of Water Quality at the Utah DEQ.
The study began in mid-April.
The initial data shows this type of study may help health officials predict where the virus will spike.
Results from Hyrum offer a strong example.
For weeks, Hyrum’s wastewater showed very small traces of COVID-19.
Then, on May 27, the sample from Hyrum detected the virus at a rate 67 times what was found a week earlier.
Soon after in early June, the Bear River Health Department which includes Hyrum, saw a spike in cases of COVID-19.
Now, the challenge for researchers is to get the data quickly to health officials.
“That’s going to be the next step, to figure out how to make this useful to public health officials. We presented it to them this week and a couple of ideas have come up,” Gaddis said. “One the most obvious would be to use it to detect early rising infection levels in some parts of the state. We may be able to see that in the sewage, and it looks like we did in Cache valley, ahead of when you see it through clinical testing. That could help the state mobilize resources.”
The study will expand in July to account for 75% of the state’s population.