Sanitary sewer flow monitoring could warn of future COVID-19 outbreaks

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Sewage: an unbiased test, a low cost surveillance method

Maximizing wastewater monitoring activities and insights, cities like Tacoma, Washington and Edmonton, Alberta are testing the feasibility of water quality sampling data to accurately provide future warnings of outbreaks of the novel coronavirus. (A similar approach has been used to screen for polio.)

Tacoma Public Utilities and RAIN Incubator take sewage samples. Photo credit The Seattle Times"Measure sewage, and you measure everybody," remarks David Hirschberg, founder of the nonprofit RAIN Incubator for biotechnology, which is working with Tacoma Public Utilities.

Scientists aren’t quantifying the number of people infected with COVID-19. Instead, their goal is to determine the presence (or absence) of the virus, especially if individuals don’t have flu-like symptoms and aren’t showing up at emergency rooms.

The rise and fall of clinical testing data and hospitalizations correlated to sample concentration data collected days earlier in an investigation led by Jordan Peccia, Professor of Environmental Engineering at Yale University. He explained his research on viral shedding by Connecticut communities into sewer sheds to The Seattle Times.

The centralized design of wastewater treatment processes waste from tens of thousands of people.
However, smaller branches within sewer systems offer more specific information – which can serve to identify and contain localized outbreaks.

screen capture of wastewater utility map and integrated monitoring dataTo conduct the in-depth, multi-disciplinary analyses these cities are determined to do, having an established comprehensive wastewater information and analytics system is critical.

Simply streaming real-time flow and water quality data from telemetry networks and LIMS isn’t enough. The automation of data tasks, including data quality assurance, can reclaim and reallocate a significant number of labor hours.

When the essential workforce may be stretched thin, having staff look at spreadsheets for alarming values is much like looking for a needle in a haystack. Designated utility staff members receive efficient alerts to issues of concern and links to understand the context, preparing them to respond within standard operating procedures.

Moreover, operational dashboards can standardize the information across working groups and with administrators to discuss emerging threats and coordinate response. Dashboards and reports can be readily shared with external stakeholders like public health and emergency management agencies.

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