Wastewater COVID-19 testing could help colleges and universities pinpoint outbreaks

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MUNCIE, Ind. — As college campuses continue to battle spikes of COVID-19 cases, the Indiana Finance Authority is working with local utility companies on a new way to track cases through wastewater.

“Wastewater has been used before, for sure, to test certain things like polio,” said Carmel Utilities Director John Duffy. “They’ve used waste water plants to test for drug usage.”

The 12-week study will test the COVID-19 samples from the wastewater in cities with a college or university that has more than 1,000 students; both Bloomington and Muncie are on the list. The results can be used to detect rising or falling surges.

“This is a very dirty sample, way dirtier than a blood sample or saliva sample,” said George Zhou, a professor at Purdue University. “It’s almost impossible to trace back the exact number of infections in the community. You are able to use that data to see the trend and the changes in currents of this virus.”

A specific location can be pinpointed if the samples are taken from a specific water line or manhole near a dorm or office building. This could allow administrators a chance to quarantine earlier.

“The beautiful thing about something like wastewater surveillance is you can detect it at the source as it is happening,” said Graham McKeen, assistant university director of public and environmental health. “Where as with a nasopharyngeal swab we might have a two to three day result before we can take public health action on that.”

Purdue and Indiana universities are not actively doing wastewater testing, but the Muncie Sanitation Department says their partnership with the Indiana Finance Authority will be testing Ball State dorms as part of the research.

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