Sewage Testing on University Campus Identifies Asymptomatic Covid Cases

A supervisor tours the Secondary Treatment Clarifiers tanks at the Los Angeles Sanitation plant where millions of gallons of wastewater are purified each day in Van Nuys, Calif., Wednesday, May 20, 2015.

A supervisor tours the Secondary Treatment Clarifiers tanks at the Los Angeles Sanitation plant where millions of gallons of wastewater are purified each day in Van Nuys, Calif., Wednesday, May 20, 2015. AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

 

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The University of Arizona tested sewage for the presence of coronavirus and identified two students who tested positive but didn’t have any symptoms for the respiratory illness.

Universities are struggling to contain the spread of Covid-19 as they reopen for in-person instruction—with infection clusters traced back to dorm housing and student parties on several campuses.  

But the University of Arizona has found a way to detect infections on campus and to take early action to prevent further spread: testing the sewage.

Through its wastewater testing system, the university this week was able to identify two students living in a campus dorm who were infected with the virus, but didn’t know they were sick or exhibit any symptoms. They were then moved to quarantine housing. 

University officials praised researchers’ quick action to identify and isolate the cases on campus.

“We think this is going to be a very valuable tool to help us get out in front,” University of Arizona President Robert Robbins said in a press conference this week.

The university’s Water and Energy Sustainability Technology Center, which began testing sewage for the presence of coronavirus earlier this year, made the finding. The center detected a high presence of viral material in wastewater traced back to one of the dorms on campus.

The school then gave coronavirus tests to the more than 300 students living in the dorm, which resulted in identifying two students who tested positive but were asymptomatic.

“Nobody would have known that otherwise but with the early detection, we jumped on it right away, tested those youngsters, and got them the appropriate isolation,” said Richard Carmona, a former U.S. surgeon general who leads the university’s reentry task force. “If we had missed it, if we waited until they became symptomatic and they stayed in that dorm for days or a week or a whole incubation period, how many other people would have been infected?”

Other communities have embraced the idea of testing sewage samples for the presence of the virus’ genetic material as an early warning sign of community spread. In Augusta, Maine, officials are testing wastewater samples, but have said that the data isn’t meant to identify a single infection, rather to detect an elevated presence of the virus in the community.

The WEST Center also began offering wastewater testing analysis to municipalities this year as a way for them to determine if the virus has entered a community or whether it is still present there even if no new cases are reported.

Cities have also examined sewage as a way to identify opioid use in their communities.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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