What's poop got to do with it?

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By Nicole Rowan, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment | August 18, 2020

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I’ve been in the world of water for more than 25 years, and I’ve worked on some really innovative projects. But nothing beats what I get to work on now...COVID-19 and poop. Oh yes, we might laugh or cringe at that word “poop,” but it actually contains vital information that we think may be able to give us an early warning about COVID-19 cases in a community. 

Here’s how it works:

Someone could start shedding the virus within two days of contracting the disease, even before they show symptoms. Even if they don’t ever end up showing symptoms, they can still be shedding the virus. Once someone flushes their toilet, that wastewater with the virus particles, along with everyone else’s wastewater in the community, goes to a wastewater treatment facility. So everyone’s poop that may or may not contain virus particles is collected at that community’s wastewater facility.  

Samples of that wastewater are sent to a lab. Using special technology, the virus’ genetic material is pulled out of the wastewater sample and analyzed. Eventually, we can see if there is an increase or decrease in virus material over time, which could then mean, there is an increase or decrease in COVID-19 cases in the community served by that facility. This data might tell us a couple of days to a week in advance of an outbreak! 

So you can see, this approach is like testing an entire community with just a few samples. We won’t know the exact number of people who are infected, but we think the trends will be enough to tell us if more resources are needed in a community to address a potential outbreak. 

We hope we can produce results after just a couple of days of taking the samples. We also plan to make this information public, but we need a lot more data first, data that is collected from the same locations and on a consistent basis.

Nothing is ever simple in the water world, and we expect some challenges. The technology is still considerably new so I highly suspect there will be surprises we can’t even conceive of yet, but we are ready to roll with it. We have excellent partners to help us problem solve, as we are teaming up with CSU and MSU Denver, as well as 16 utilities right now in Colorado which covers about 65% of the state. Together we will build lab capacity, protocols, and get the infrastructure in place so that other wastewater utilities, or even facilities, can also start collecting this data.

Projects like this are why I have been in this job so long - innovative, scientific approaches that help support Coloradan communities. 

You can learn more about this project on the state’s COVID-19 website.