Wastewater Shows Promise For Tracking COVID Spread

Oct 1, 2020

The struggle to get the most updated information on the spread of COVID-19 in a community has been crucial for local and national government decision-making. Here’s the unlikely source of data for a Jackson County project that hopes to increase the speed of information.

COVID-19 testing delays and asymptomatic carriers have contributed to a slower understanding of how many people in a community have the virus.

“Our goal here is to really give public health officials an early warning for what’s happening in the community.”

That’s Aparna Keshaviah. She’s a Senior Statistician at Mathematica. The a research analytics firm just released a study measuring the COVID-19 virus in Jackson County’s wastewater. The study found that testing the wastewater could identify an increase in the spread of COVID-19 about 9 days before the positive tests were reported to the local health department.

“Wastewater testing has really been an academic enterprise. It hasn’t been used as an operational strategy to protect public health in real time,” says Keshaviah.  

However, this is changing the CDC is currently working on a National Wastewater Surveillance System. Colleges like  University of Arizona  and UNC Chapel Hill have also been using wastewater testing to stop COVID-19 spread.

Keshaviah who lives in Haywood County, says it’s important that different types of communities, like rural Western North Carolina, are considered for this kind of testing.

“I wanted to make sure that diverse types of communities - rural communities, underrepresented regions - are included as the method is validated and developed,” says Keshaviah.  

Mathematica partnered with Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority, the Jackson County Department of Public Health and others for the project. Keshaviah says Dogwood Health Trust funded the $3,000 pilot project. Now she hopes to expand to other counties across the region. In the next phase Keshaviah also hopes to get results back faster in two to three days. There is also the possibility to integrate an opiate use study into the project.