City of Lawrence participating in study to test sewage for prevalence of coronavirus infections

photo by: Philip Heying/Journal-World File Photo

The City of Lawrence Wastewater Treatment Facility at 1400 E. Eighth St., is pictured in this file photo from March 13, 2009.

The City of Lawrence will be taking part in a study that tests sewage as a way of tracking coronavirus infections.

As part of a study contracted through the University of Kansas School of Engineering, the city has been taking weekly sewage samples at both wastewater treatment plants to test for components of the virus that are shed in excrement, according to a city news release. The city has partnered with Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to share data and collaborate on the study.

The release states that tracking the presence of the shed virus components may give local health officials knowledge of how widespread the virus is in the community, allowing them to take proactive measures to help mitigate its spread.

“The wastewater study is a great example of how our community is collaborating and using every tool in our toolbox to plan and prepare for fighting coronavirus,” Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health Director of Informatics Sonia Jordan said in the release. “This study will help us make informed decisions moving forward, including related to staffing, bandwidth and surge capacity.”

The city is the only community in the state that is currently conducting weekly sampling for coronavirus components in wastewater, according to the release. As additional sampling data is collected, the city will work to develop a data dashboard that will display the weekly results relative to the health department’s case count data. The city, KU and health agency partners will work to evaluate the COVID-19 prevalence data as an early-warning indicator.

Belinda Sturm, associate vice chancellor for research at KU, is communicating emerging research to the city and local and state health departments. A recent study from New Haven, Conn., showed that COVID-19 concentrations in wastewater preceded new cases identified in health clinics by one week, and the wastewater concentrations correlated with new case counts. The result is a sort of “canary in a coalmine” alert that lets people know when cases are likely to increase.

“We hope to bring this early-detection to our community,” Sturm said in the release. “If the community responds quickly when wastewater concentrations spike, we can reduce transmission greatly with one-week lead times.”

The study began in April when both wastewater plants were sampled as part of a preliminary KDHE study. That study demonstrated that viral RNA, or genetic material from the virus, can be concentrated and detected from wastewater using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention diagnostic method. The release states it is important to note that disinfection by all Kansas public water suppliers inactivates the virus and drinking water remains safe for consumption.

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