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As a new strain of coronavirus (COVID-19) swept through the world in 2020, preparedness plans, masking policies and more public policy changed just as quickly. WVXU has covered the pandemic's impact on the Tri-State from the very beginning, when on March 3, 2020, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine barred spectators from attending the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus over concerns about the virus, even though Ohio had yet to confirm a single case of COVID-19.

Northern Kentucky Begins Wastewater COVID-19 Monitoring

Courtesy of SD1
A file photo of an SD1 employee collecting field samples. These samples are now being tested for the presence of the coronavirus.

Joining similar agencies around the country, including in Hamilton County, Sanitation District No. 1 of Northern Kentucky (SD1) is now testing local wastewater for the presence of the coronavirus.

SD1 is working with researchers at the University of Louisville's Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute to test wastewater samples for indicators of shedded coronavirus as a way to identify and head off potential COVID-19 hotspots.

"A lot of times before people even know they're sick we can tell in the wastewater that that's going to be an area of concern," says Chris Cole, SD1 director of enterprise communications.

Testing can identify the presence of shedded coronavirus by people who are asymptomatic or don't yet realize they're sick. Samples are taken from nine testing sites and three wastewater treatment plants to be tested regularly. Cole adds the testing doesn't require much extra work or expense.

"We're already out there collecting these samples at treatment plants and various other locations around the region, so it's just a matter of taking the samples and sharing them with a wider audience," he says. In this case, that's the research team at UofL.

While the data won't narrow results to an individual house, Cole says it can identify specific communities. The information will be passed on to the Northern Kentucky Health Department to help it determine where prevention efforts and resources should be allocated to stem the spread.

Data collection begins Sept. 1 but it will take "a little bit of time to determine trends," says Cole. "But, pretty quickly we'll be able to tell where active hot spots are in our region, and the key is that with that information we'll be able to develop a regional strategy that is specific to Northern Kentucky and not just apply a one-size-fits-all approach."

"Identifying troubling trends early in specific areas allows officials to protect the public health in those communities with targeted policy measures, while still allowing the areas where people are wearing masks and practicing social distancing to remain more open," says Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky in a statement. "Experts have learned a lot about this virus, how it spreads and what works to prevent the spread. Wastewater testing gives us regularly updated hot spot information that leads to better, more effective policy decisions."

This type of testing is already underway around the country and in Greater Cincinnati. The U.S. EPA Water Research Lab in Cincinnati partnered with the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) in May to test samples from seven wastewater treatment plants. That has since been limited to five treatment plants to reduce strain on EPA laboratories as more treatment plants around the state were added to the EPA testing.

According to Bruce Smith, MSD assistant superintendent of the Regulatory Compliance and Safety Division, raw sewage composite sample analysis for MSD's three largest facilities - Mill Creek, Little Miami and Muddy Creek - is being provided to the Ohio Department of Health for a tracking dashboard the agency is working on. The same data from the Taylor Creek treatment plant and Lick Run sewershed is being sent to USEPA for research purposes.

Similar testing on a smaller scale just last week is being heralded for heading offa potential outbreak at the University of Arizona. Evidence of the virus was detected in a dormitory's wastewater, the building occupants were all tested and two asymptomatic students tested positive. They were moved to the university's quarantine dorm.

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.