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Your sewage could help Pinellas County Utilities track COVID-19

Researchers are using wastewater epidemiology in hopes of knowing the community prevalence of coronavirus ahead of test results.

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — It’s a new way to potentially track COVID-19 before you even know you’re sick: testing raw sewage.

Pinellas County is the first in Tampa Bay to begin collecting samples for analysis and the utilities department hopes tracing the virus through untreated wastewater could be the "canary in the coal mine." 

The South Cross Bayou Treatment plant in Pinellas County is a 24/7 operation. Located just north of the city of St. Petersburg, it’s one of two treatment plants for the county. 

Each day 35 million gallons of raw wastewater are treated to remove everything from pollution to pathogens such as the common cold, E. Coli and viruses like COVID.

“The canary in the coal mine. With wastewater treatment, we can detect potentially levels of the virus and detect its presence in the community possibly even before individuals know they have the virus,” Megan Ross said.

Ross is the director of Pinellas County Utilities. She and the other women behind the scenes of wastewater treatment for Pinellas County spoke with 10 Investigates’ Courtney Robinson.

In June, they embarked on a new COVID-19 research project involving wastewater analytics and epidemiology.

“What we’re flushing down the toilet comes from us. It comes from our bodies, so I still think there’s a lot we can learn and that’s why we do the testing,” said Hillary Weber, assistant director of Pinellas County Utilities.

It’s science.

When a virus replicates inside your body and is released into the environment, that’s called viral shedding. It shows up in the fecal matter, which then shows up in sewage.

A machine at the South Cross Bayou Advanced Water Reclamation Facility takes comprehensive samples of untreated wastewater. It provides a 24-hour snapshot that is then put into a bottle and shipped to a lab in South Florida, Source Molecular, for analysis. 

Bina Nayak is the water research project manager. She explained why collecting samples now is critical.

“It’s too preliminary right now to devise any trends. The more we collect, the more information we can glean, and this helps us get that data already because you cannot go back in time. If you do it later, you have lost that baseline,” Nayak said.

The missing piece for Pinellas County is a research institution that can analyze the data being collected.

“We’re hoping to partner with a research institution in the future that can help to analyze that data and potentially use it in coordination with health officials to help measure the levels of COVID-19 in terms of community spread,” Ross said.

Biobot, the first company to start testing sewage for COVID-19 and analyzing trends, says this technology is working.

The Boston-based company found a correlation between its data and case results in the community a week later after testing sewage. The company believes this is a good indicator of incidence of the virus.

Pinellas County Utilities says once it gets a research partner like Biobot it could take this project deeper. It’s possible they would be able to go into pipes in specific neighborhoods and collect samples to analyze and then help public health officials predict hotspots and prepare.

“It’s a non-invasive tool. It doesn’t require people to get tested. If and when there is a second wave maybe, we can see it two weeks prior in the wastewater,” Nayak said.

“Most people don’t think about this and the value because everything is underground. We flush and don’t see it again. It really is the number one defense against the spread of any and all diseases,” Ross said.

This is not the first-time wastewater epidemiology has been used in a public health crisis. Biobot first did this during the opioid epidemic. The company was able to pick up traces of drug use in sewage and provide that information to public health officials.

Pinellas County Utilities also has another project in the works to reassure the community that treated wastewater is safe and does not contain the virus that causes COVID-19.

Treated wastewater becomes reclaimed water. It’s used for irrigation and some of it is discharged into surface water.

Pinellas County Utilities has partnered with Tulane University researchers. They are analyzing treated wastewater to ensure the treatment processes effectively removes the COVID-19 virus.

“It preliminary has confirmed, what we already know, is that our disinfection processes are sufficient at eliminating and inactivating the COVID-19 virus,” Ross said.

Utility departments from across the country are also involved in this project.

Knowing that the disinfection processes work is important for public health and wastewater treatment plant employees. Nayak says some were concerned about exposure and this is key to double-checking treated wastewater is safe.

All say these research partnerships are critical in the fight against COVID-19 and future pandemics.

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