New initiative tests wastewater for COVID-19


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MARYLAND (WDVM) — With the recent spike in COVID-19 cases throughout the state of Maryland, Governor Larry Hogan has designated $1 million dollars from CARES Act funding for a wastewater testing initiative.

Assistant Secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment, Suzanne Dorsey, explained that this new initiative will allow outbreaks to be detected in congregate and potentially high-risk communities, like large apartment buildings, group living facilities, subsidized housing, and in areas where COVID tests might not be completely accessible.

Dorsey also said that MDE is working with the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to detect outbreaks faster and more efficiently in correctional facilities.

“This Sewer Sentinal Initiative is using innovative science to test wastewater to save lives and stop the spread of COVID in our community.”

The initiative is an opt-in program meaning that local governments have the option as to whether or not they want to implement the testing. Dorsey also explained that after interest is shown, MDE must determine whether the wastewater facility in that particular community can support such testing.

The samples of wastewater, which include fecal matter, are sent to labs to be tested for traces of the novel coronavirus. The samples cannot be traced back to a specific person, only to the area where the sample originated from.

“It’s a pooled monitoring or pooled testing technique so we can neither tell exactly how many people are sick nor can we tell who is sick. We can just determine that in a particular location, we are seeing increasing numbers of the virus which would be indicative of an outbreak occurring.”

Dorsey stated that the samples are not kept after the tests are completed. She also explained that these samples do not pose any risk to people who might come into contact with the wastewater.

Dorsey cited data from the Centers for Disease Control which states that “while data are limited, there is little evidence of the infectious virus in wastewater and no information to date that anyone has become sick with COVID-19 because of exposure to wastewater.”

The Sewer Sentinal initiative is an extension of the pilot program that was introduced in July.

Mount St. Mary’s University has implemented this type of testing on its campus. Environmental Health and Safety Officer, Will Wood, explained that wastewater testing is being used as a surveillance tool to try and detect asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic students living in the dorm buildings.

Wood believes that testing wastewater from around the campus has allowed the school to stay ahead of potential outbreaks by detecting the virus early on. He described an incident at the beginning of the fall semester that solidified the necessity of the testing.

“In the early parts of the semester, we had an outbreak in a residence hall and we found the outbreak due to the wastewater sampling,” said Wood. “I made a recommendation to the president to test [the students] and with the advice from the Frederick health officer, Dr. Barbara Brookmeyer, that we should probably test the entire dorm and we did. So in doing that, we found 9 asymptomatic cases.”

Dorsey explained that wastewater testing is projected to be implemented within the next 30 days.

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