City Looking to Predict COVID-19 Trends Through Wastewater

Detecting COVID-19 through wastewater may sound ludicrous, but it might provide an early detection system crucial to the City of Gillette’s response to the growing coronavirus pandemic.

For months now, the city wastewater crews have been collecting samples from incoming wastewater from the entire community, including Sleepy Hollow, according to City Utilities Director Mike Cole.

Those samples, taken twice a week, are sent to the Wyoming Department of Health (WDH) lab in Cheyenne, the goal being to gain valuable intelligence of upcoming COVID-19 trends bases on the virus’ presence in the samples.

How prevalent the virus is in the samples can supposedly provide health officials and municipal governments a broad picture of what percentage of the community is infected with and shedding the COVID-19 virus.

As of Dec. 14, the WDH has estimated that 13.4 percent of the city’s population is infected with or shedding the COVID-19 virus based on wastewater samples. That percentage has climbed dramatically from the three percent seen in the early September samples, but is also down from the 16 percent spike in early December, Cole said.

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But the method is still new and while it can give health officials a heads up of the change in trends, it can’t reveal a precise number of how many residents are afflicted with COVID-19, according to the CDC.

“I think it’s a good indicator of general numbers, but because there are so many variables, I question the validity of it,” Cole agreed.

The CDC does not condone using numbers from wastewater testing to justify health-oriented action one way or another. But used in conjunction with current COVID-19 detection and reporting techniques, testing wastewater for the virus can provide health and government officials with a valuable heads up of what direction the COVID-19 pandemic is moving.

The CDC reports that wastewater COVID-19 testing reveals trends that are followed, sometimes as quickly as a couple of days, by spikes or decreases in lab-confirmed case numbers.

Those trends can be used by an organization, such as the City of Gillette or Public Health, on when to increase testing, communication, and how effective those mitigation strategies are within a community in terms of COVID-19 presence, per the CDC.

Testing wastewater can also be narrowed down to a group of buildings or even a single building, according to the CDC, which can show if additional individual COVID-19 testing and mitigation measures are appropriate.

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Cole said that the city, from their standpoint, can use wastewater testing to detect any spikes in COVID-19 in city employees, allowing city leadership to make the proper adjustments to keep their employees safe and healthy as the pandemic grows.

And the pandemic is growing. In the nine months since COVID-19 breached Wyoming’s wide borders, making its initial appearance in a woman from Sheridan County 90 days after the first reported case in the United States, the number of statewide COVID-19 lab-confirmed cases has climbed from a mere handful to well over 37,000.

As the number of active cases increase, so does the number of deaths attributed to the virus with new death reports emerging every week. According to the most recent numbers reported by the Wyoming Department of Health (WDH), more than 400 Wyoming residents have died of health complications arising from COVID-19.

Campbell County has not been spared and maintains the third highest number of lab-confirmed cases and 29 deaths attributed to the virus in the state, per WDH.