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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.

Wastewater Surveillance To Be Tracked Beyond COVID

These wastewater samples are ready to be shipped to the EPA in Cincinnati for testing.

Testing wastewater is an easy and relatively cheap way to detect disease in a community. Even though scientists were unable to effectively use it as an early warning for  COVID-19, their research is expected to help with other viruses and bacteria.

Metropolitan Sewer District Assistant Superintendent Bruce Smith and the EPA's Jay Garlandstarted collecting samples this spring and testing it for the coronavirus. That's because there was evidence that even asymptomatic patients shed the virus into wastewater.

Credit MSD
MSD Assistant Superintendent Bruce Smith in a lab with the samples.

They wanted to give health officials an early heads up if a surge was coming. They perfected the testing methods but unfortunately not in time to warn communities of the spread.

"Right now it's no one's surprise that we would detect virus in the wastewater if most of the community has it and is shedding it," Smith says. "It doesn't provide a significant amount of new data."

Even so, Smith says they've learned a lot. "What we hope is that our methods have improved and the sensitivity has increased tenfold and we are better positioned if another outbreak for this or some other organism."

Here's how they did it and then shared the information.

They collected samples from each of Hamilton County's wastewater treatment plants throughout the pandemic. Now that they have a time series of the samples, the lab is going to sequence the genes and look at how COVID changes across time and across the county.

"While we have not necessarily found a magic bullet, this has really been worthwhile and I would expect some of this approach to carry on into the future because wastewater really can provide a wealth of information," says Smith.

This summer, Northern Kentucky followed suit, as reported by WVXU's Tana Weingartner.

And the University of Arizona used wastewater samplingto help get students back in class.

Other colleges and universities in Ohio are testing wastewater to track COVID's spread to dorms. They're working with the Ohio Department of Health.

Ann Thompson has decades of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting.