Rochester, N.Y. — It's a dirty job - but one that is proving to be highly effective.
Wastewater testing is becoming more common in the fight against COVID.
Colleges like St. John Fisher and Rochester Institute of Technology started using this testing to help track where COVID has spread on campus. So, too, are nursing homes across the state.
At RIT two nights a week, sanitation crews pull sample containers of wastewater out of 15 manholes on campus.
"That sampler basically grabs small samples throughout a 24-hour period," said Enid Cardinal from RIT's Strategic Planning and Sustainability Office. "The contractor then empties it into a transport sample container that brings it to a lab in Syracuse."
Scientists at Quadrant Biosciences then analyze the samples of sewer water to determine whether there is a presence of COVID. It takes anywhere from 24 to 48 hours for wastewater sample results to come in.
"What we are doing is purifying it and concentrating it at the same time," explained Hyatt Green, assistant professor of environmental and forest biology at State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. “We are detecting coronavirus from asymptomatic individuals who may be contributing to community spread. So these may be people who wouldn’t show up to clinics for testing.”
Health leaders credit wastewater testing for alerting them to COVID spread at several college campuses, including the State University of New York at Oneonta, where more than 500 students tested positive in less than week.
Locally, St. John Fisher College is the latest school to use this method, narrowing down which dorms had COVID-positive students, and who should get tested.
Green says testing could become even more critical as health experts warn about a possible second wave.
“Where I would really love to see them expand is even more municipalities. There are dozens of counties that we are not analyzing wastewater from. That’s a missed data point that we don’t have to help fight COVID 19," he said.