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Doing Our Doody To Combat COVID

Tracking Coronavirus Through Our Sewers

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Above image credit: Photo illustration. (Aurore Marechal/Abaca/Sipa USA(Sipa via AP Images)

The COVID-19 pandemic has left a lot of us feeling confused by a virus that is constipating our lives.

But now comes word out of Kansas that we don’t have to take this lying down. In fact, all we have to do is sit down… on the toilet.

This promising bit of news comes courtesy of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) and the University of Kansas School of Engineering. Leading the charge is Belinda Sturm, KU’s associate vice chancellor for research and professor of civil, environmental and architectural engineering.

Following up from studies in the Netherlands and Massachusetts, Sturm is hoping that analyses of wastewater can help health authorities track the prevalence of the coronavirus. Research suggests that tests can pick up genetic traces of the virus in sewage treatment plants.

So in April, at the behest of KDHE, Sturm collected samples from a dozen systems around the state, both urban and rural.

“I’ve worked with professor Sturm on a lot of things — I knew she was on the cutting edge on a lot of issues regarding wastewater,” KDHE official Tom Stiles said in a news release. “She jumped right on it.”

Stiles is director of the department’s water bureau. The release said that Sturm should have preliminary results soon.

Stiles emphasized that wastewater results could simply augment more testing of individuals. He called such evidence an “early warning device” for community officials who would rely more heavily on “health-based metrics” like the number of cases and hospitalizations.

“The idea is we can’t test everybody in our community,” Sturm said, “but we can test the catchment to see if COVID is present in our community, if it’s increasing or decreasing.”

By one measure, Kansas is behind in community testing. Data from Johns Hopkins University has Kansas near the bottom of the list among states (plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia) in testing per capita. Missouri is slightly better.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, scientists do not know the level of risk that the virus can spread through infected feces. There have been no documented cases of such transmission, the CDC said.

The agency said scientists believe that risk is low based on data from previous outbreaks of diseases caused by related coronaviruses, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

Sturm said a big piece of her work will be determining the accuracy of the test, even in a large urban system where only trace amounts of the genetic material might be present.

“We don’t want false negatives, and we don’t want false positives,” she said. “It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

Poop and hay? It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.

KCPT is committed to serving you with high-quality information and entertainment through this challenging time. Visit kept.org/coronavirus.

Mike Sherry is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS. He can be reached at msherry@kcpt.org or 816.398.4205.

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