Testing will help determine where coronavirus is about to break out in Ohio, and almost everyone who uses a bathroom will be a “participant.”
The project involves sampling inflow to municipal sewage and wastewater treatment systems across Ohio.
Already begun last week in Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati, samples have been drawn and are currently being analyzed.
The technique requires intercepting samples of raw sewage before it is processed at plants.
Viral RNA fragments — parts of a large molecule (ribonucleic acid), which, like DNA, are considered the building blocks of life — are present in the feces, and can be used to identify communities with COVID-19, whether individuals have symptoms of the illness or not.
The sampling and computer analysis will be conducted by the Ohio Department of Health, several universities and the U.S. Environment Protection Agency in Cincinnati.
The analysis will occur at least weekly to better determine hot spots, sort of an early warning system, said one of the study’s leaders.
“It’s more of a leading indicator of trends, to let you know if you have increasing rates of disease or not,” said Rebecca Fugitt, Ohio Department of Health assistant chief in the bureau of environmental health and radiation protection.
The data could also indicate the disease prevalence, although rainfall, industrial waste and other factors could alter results.
Emerging science, both nationally and worldwide, suggests that the virus in infected individuals can be detected in wastewater from three to seven days before there are increases in cases and/or hospitalizations.
Sewer plants in Dayton and Montgomery County, Youngstown and Akron will be tested beginning this month, with 10 locations added weekly until the entire state is covered, Fugitt said.
Samples from the Southerly and Jackson Pike treatment plants have already been tested, said Zuzana Bohrerova, assistant director of the federally funded Water Resource Center on the Ohio State University campus, which is testing in central Ohio.
“It’s definitely exciting because it can be applied,” said Bohrerova, a microbiologist and environmental engineer. “It can be really useful (for officials) to prepare” for surges in the virus.
The analysis is expected to determine viral loads as a leading indicator of outbreaks in a community, help determine trends, and provide one more tool on the state Department of Health dashboard to help Gov. Mike DeWine make tough decisions about deploying interventions such as mandated mask use or restrictions on businesses, schools, daycare operations and other public gathering places.
The research is being supported by $2 million in federal CARES Act funding. Leaders expect to expand the study to include other universities across the state with laboratory capabilities and eventually to add medium and small community sewer systems.
Additional information about the research, including sampling data, will be posted in the future on the state health department’s COVID-19 website.