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DeKALB – Two years ago, Kishwaukee Water Reclamation District Engineer Mike Holland started hearing about a new way to test for the virus that causes COVID-19 in wastewater – today , the concept works at DeKalb.
Holland, who oversees capital improvement projects with the Water Reclamation District, said he’s heard of people testing sewage for viruses, particularly SARS-CoV-2, to gauge prevalence. of the virus in the community.
He did some research and found the Department of Microbiology at Northern Illinois University and Barrie Bode, who chairs the department.
“So that got me thinking about who would be able to do that,” Holland said, recalling his conversation with Bode. “[I said] “I think your lab is capable of doing that, is that something you would be interested in working on together?” And that kind of thing got things going.
Bode, director of COVID-19 facilities at NIU, quickly latched onto the idea and found he also had the university’s backing.
“We had the equipment, the knowledge, the technical expertise to measure the virus and he had the sampling power and technology,” Bode said. “So we simply combined the two and literally created a wastewater testing program out of existing equipment, personnel and technology.”
The program effectively begins by collecting wastewater samples from different sites on the NIU campus, such as dormitories or specific buildings to be tested.
“We process it in the lab and measure it for the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” Bode said. “And so people are spreading the virus in sewage through feces and that’s a really good passive indicator of COVID infections.”
This passive indicator was a huge tool for the university when students began returning to campus in droves in late 2020 after the spring onslaught of the pandemic moved classes online and remotely.
“Having surveillance here, especially people who might be at risk, [gives] some level of confidence that we are monitoring virus levels on campus,” Bode said.
He also noted that the program “is a big deal” for college instructors, who are often among the most vulnerable population on campus.
“They like to get an idea if we’re in the middle of another wave, and what that could lead to is people wearing masks in class to mitigate the spread of the virus,” Bode said.
The sewage tests also allow the university to determine if surges could occur sooner than the test data shows.
Syed Hyder, who works with Bode at the NIU’s COVID-19 facilities, said as of Jan. 19, dormitories where the lab collects samples had a “low to moderate” prevalence rate.
In addition to dormitory sampling sites, the program has two community sites that sample wastewater on a larger public scale: buildings that are open to the general public and the water reclamation district water treatment plant. of Kishwaukee which is used for an enlarged view of the larger community.
Although the virus that causes COVID-19 has a low prevalence in dormitory sewage samples, there is one community site near the Hillcrest area of DeKalb that Hyder says is seeing an increase in infections.
“We can’t really tell you what viral levels will correlate to in terms of case counts or anything,” Hyder said, “but we can tell, as things trend up or down , how things look, and Hillcrest, the site, looks more towards moderate and regularly at that.
As of Jan. 19, DeKalb County’s COVID-19 transmission rate is at an average level, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Health officials recommend taking extra precautions for people who are immunocompromised or at higher risk for more severe illness, and wearing masks when appropriate indoors where crowd control or social distancing is limited.
Bode said sewage-based epidemiology has predictive value.
“We often see an increase in virus levels in wastewater before the number of cases increases in the community,” Bode said. “So it also has predictive value.”
Now that this means of testing has been proven by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a new push to use it for other viruses that are chronically affecting the community.
This week, Hyder will run tests to find out if the same process can be used to test for respiratory syncytial virus – known as RSV – as well as influenza types A and B in sewage. In the fall, New York public health officials announced that poliovirus had been detected in New York City sewage after similar testing, The Associated Press reported.
Hyder said that in theory testing for other viruses shouldn’t be hard to do.
“We don’t really need to change much about what we’re doing other than getting the primer probe sets, which are virus-specific,” Hyder said. “We actually just received the RSV and influenza primer probe sets today.”
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