Eastern Michigan University started a new wastewater surveillance program on Sept. 17 to monitor the spread of COVID-19 on campus.
The wastewater surveillance operation is being conducted by Aquasight, a Michigan-based company. Through analysis of the wastewater, Aquasight’s Oakland University-based laboratory can detect COVID-19 genetic fragments.
Laboratory analysis of the collected wastewater samples will reveal if genetic markers for coronavirus are present in campus residential wastewater. Positive results can be attributed to specific buildings, which may indicate not only if an infected student is present, but can be used to estimate the number of infected residents. The university can use these data to take additional action, such as testing all residents in that building to determine how many are currently infected and require isolation.
“We’re putting portable samplers in the manholes across campus,” David Inman, the Aquasight project manager, said. Inman oversees the water surveillance operation on EMU’s campus. “From there, we’re able to collect the sewage on a 24-hour basis from different buildings around the college, keep it on ice, then it goes to our laboratory.”
Dr. Christopher Gellasch, an associate professor of hydrogeology at EMU, has research experience conducting sewer sampling and analyzing wastewater for viruses. Based on that experience, he reached out to university administration and they invited him to work with Aquasight to analyze the virus data from the wastewater sampling program.
The wastewater sampling and analysis, although an innovative element, is one part of the overall evidence-based effort to monitor and prevent coronavirus infections on campus. “It’s important tool to allow us to detect potential COVID-19 cases without having to test every person in the dorms all the time,“ Gellasch said.
The operation poses itself as a cost-effective alternative to widespread, frequent, testing of students. The endeavor is particularly useful to detect asymptomatic carriers of the virus, who are still a risk to spreading the infection, but may not present traditional symptoms of the virus.
Gellasch feels a passion for his role in the operation as he is an EMU alumni who lived in the very student residence buildings he is now testing.
The sampling equipment was installed on EMU’s campus between Sept. 11 and 14. Sampling will take place twice a week for the first five to six weeks. The frequent sample testing is deliberate, in order to accommodate the influx of students that moved onto campus in mid-September. Although weekly sampling is planned throughout the year, the exact interval is contingent on the results of the first few weeks.
The data generated from the analysis of the wastewater is shared with Eastern Michigan University faculty. The university does not plan to publish this data for public viewership in accordance with HIPAA act protocols, which forbid the public disclosure of identifiable health information.