The poop sampling we told you about in May is starting to reveal some helpful data in the fight to slow the spread of COVID-19 in a couple of Texas cities. It is not yet specific enough to allow for an early warning system about impending neighborhood outbreaks, but it is mirroring the information governmental officials are receiving from other sources, validating its potential as a potentially faster method to identify and contain the disease.
Both Austin and Houston are monitoring wastewater for the presence of COVID-19. In Houston, the project is a partnership among the city, Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine. In Austin, researchers at the University of Texas are doing the monitoring.
Houston’s initial wastewater testing started back in May and led to additional in-person testing at several congregant living centers in the city. The city’s health department has plans to soon begin testing wastewater at Houston long-term care facilities. So far, project results indicate a decrease in the virus across Houston, which is exactly what the city’s rate of positive results from up-the-nose testing shows.
“Testing wastewater is a faster and cheaper way to monitor community health compared to testing individuals,” said Dr. Lauren Stadler, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University and academic lead of the Houston project. “This approach is a powerful tool that doesn’t require any individuals to opt in and provides a way to measure both asymptomatic and symptomatic cases.”
The wastewater sampling is not meant to be a replacement for individual testing but is instead a way to grab a snapshot of what we might expect down the road.
“We could have an indication a week, two weeks, ahead of the case numbers rising,” said UT Canary Team member Kerry Kinney in an interview with KVUE. “And if we actually go out into the sewer shed and look at different areas across Austin, for example, we can know where we could target the resources to get additional testing so we can catch it early.”
Austin Water commissioned the work with UT. They started testing samples from two wastewater treatment plants. The next step is take samples from manholes around Austin, especially near UT, with the hope of being able to trace findings back to a specific building on campus.
“At a time when fewer people are getting tested, this project helps us see what’s happening in the city,” said Dr. David Persse, Houston’s local health authority. “People still need to go out and get tested, but this project gives us data that serves as another tool to identify disease, slow the spread, and save lives.”