Wastewater surveillance is now being used in the Charlottesville area to help forecast surges in COVID-19 cases.
The samples, combined with other data, are part of an epidemiologic model project at the University of Virginia.
Ultimately, the data will be shared with public health officials, hospitals, the Virginia Department of Heath and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Wastewater Surveillance System.
“The long-term goal is to combine as many data inputs as we can, and have them synergize with one another to more accurately predict what’s going to happen in the next couple of weeks,” said Brent French, a professor of biomedical engineering at UVa.
Heman Shakeri, an assistant professor in UVa’s School of Data Science; Michael D. Porter, an associate professor of systems engineering; and French are leading the project, which received funding from the Ivy Foundation’s COVID-19 Translational Research Fund.
French said the initial motivation for the project was when the hospital system rescheduled elective surgeries and clinic visits in the spring in anticipation of having a flood of COVID-19 patients, resulting in furloughs for some medical staffers.
In Virginia, wastewater surveillance also is being done in Hampton Roads.
The project team is sampling wastewater at five sites in the city and Albemarle County, covering most of the Charlottesville area. The sites were selected using GIS data to determine the most logical points to sample with the resources available.
“The biggest constraint is the cost of the auto-samplers, which are about $5,000 apiece, and there’s also a manpower limitation because it takes a village to actually make this happen and somebody has to pay those paychecks,” French said.
UVa Facilities Management staff members are going out to the sites, opening the manhole covers and setting up the auto-samplers.
Paul Zmick, the senior associate director for energy and utilities, said he’s working with the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority, the city and the Albemarle County Service Authority on access to the system, and that they’ll get a preliminary update by the end of this year. Other entities had offered to do wastewater surveillance in the area, he said.
“I recommended that they let us do it, because we’re doing it [at UVa] and we have funding, so that wouldn’t cost them anything for the community to learn this,” Zmick said. “The results will be shared once we understand what we’re looking at. We’re very early on.”
Zmick and French said the auto-samplers were delayed in getting here and they weren’t able to start taking samples until November.
“We’ve had relatively low case counts ever since we began sampling,” French said. “It’s currently beneath our detectable limits.”
Monitoring wastewater is already being done at dormitories and other buildings at UVa, and the UVa Biocomplexity Institute has been working with the state to provide epidemiological modeling based on case counts from VDH.
French said the groups’ project fits in with these ongoing efforts and is intended to complement them rather than compete with them.
“Where we see the value in the wastewater surveillance in a post-surge period, during a calm time … the wastewater surveillance would be a good way to detect an unanticipated resurgence and even to zero in on what part of the city that resurgence is occurring,” he said.
In addition to wastewater surveillance, the model also will use data scraped from the internet, including social media, to monitor public compliance with social distancing measures.
The CDC is developing a portal for health officials across the country to submit wastewater testing data, which will be used to create a national database.
“Our team’s primary goal is simply to implement the CDC program here in [Charlottesville] the best we can given the resources available to us,” French said.