UVA researchers and facilities workers test wastewater to track spread of COVID-19

Facilities management workers place waste water testing technology in a manhole.
Facilities management workers place waste water testing technology in a manhole.(wvir)
Updated: Dec. 13, 2020 at 2:03 PM EST
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Researchers and facilities managers from the University of Virginia are teaming up with Charlottesville and Albemarle County to help track and hopefully prevent the spread of COVID-19 by extracting wastewater samples from manholes across the area.

“If someone is symptomatic, they often will be diagnosed and they will be confined, so they are not contributing to the transmission to the disease because they are confined, while the a-symptomatic cases are still continuing to the spread,” said Heman Shakeri, an associate professor at UVA’s School of Data Science. “We want to have a good representation of people who are still shedding the virus, and the sewage data is good at providing that for us.”

Waste water travels from manholes up a tube, into an auto-sample, and later, is studied in a lab. Results are usually ready within 24 hours. Researcher Michael Porter says the testing can spot COVID-19 miles away, both literally and figuratively.

“People tend to shed the virus before they even know they’re infected, so there’s the potential for us to get an early jump on indicating where we’re starting to see hot-spots potentially emerge, with the idea that that can trigger some intervention quickly,” Porter said.

Porter said this form of testing could be the least invasive way to see what groups of people have COVID-19, based on where they are.

“You don’t need to go in individually and take a swab or stick something in the nose or down the throat. It’s kind of a passive sensing,” Porter said. “Now the drawback of that is, you don’t know who is infected with COVID-19. In this case, we just have an idea approximately the number of people in the community who may have it.”

If a sample tests positive for the virus, the area the sample was found in will be notified.

Lead researcher Dr. Brent French said it’s not a matter of if they’ll find proof of COVID-19, but when.

“We are now seeing the spike from Thanksgiving beginning to and we expect that to get worse after Christmas so we it’ll only take a week to 10 days after each holiday that you’ll see it in the case count.”

Dr. French’s team say they’re hoping to be able to eventually move testing sites around to different locations to get a full-scale picture of COVID-19 transmission in the area.

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