How Studying Wastewater Improves Awareness of COVID-19

Zach Sevart, Staff Writer

During January 2022, the world saw the Omicron COVID-19 variant cause a spike in infections that peaked at around 1.6 million new confirmed cases on January 10th. Luckily, infections started to drop down to around 10,000 per day throughout April, but a slow rise in infections per day has alerted the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Along with rising infection rates, the use of rapid antigen tests has increased, replacing PCR tests (polymerase chain reaction) in the process. Because of this, the CDC is not receiving accurate information on COVID-19 cases in areas where people only self test, and therefore cannot make conclusions on whether some places have increasing or decreasing COVID-19 infection rates. It was not until recently that the CDC increased their efforts in studying wastewater to identify COVID-19 infections. By taking samples from the waste water of humans, scientists can determine if COVID-19 cases were rising, falling, or staying the same in a given community. It is with this method of testing that we will be able to determine if COVID-19 is still a serious problem, or less of a threat than it has been in the past.

During September 2020, the CDC launched the National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS) to track the presence of COVID-19 in wastewater samples across the country. It was much harder to get tested for COVID-19 during its early stages, so people would often get sick with it, spread it, and then fully recover without even realizing it. This caused entire communities to get sick before anything could be done to prevent it. One of the benefits to using wastewater testing would be alerting scientists of an increase in COVID-19 infections in a community before it could escalate. Because it would be impossible to determine the exact amount of people infected with COVID-19 from just a sample of wastewater, scientists are focused on the presence of the virus in a given sample, with a larger presence indicating higher infection rates, and a small presence indicating low infection rates. In 2022, as rapid tests became easier to purchase, people were testing more often, which resulted in people isolating themselves as soon as possible when they tested positive. Vaccines and increased testing among the U.S. population during April caused cases to drop to the lowest number of infections per day in almost a year according to the CDC COVID Data Tracker, but this created another issue. COVID-19 has negatively impacted many lives, which is why everyone is ready to return to a life where COVID-19 is no longer a serious issue, even if that means not wearing masks or social distancing when necessary. Because of this, people are taking testing and common COVID-19 symptoms less seriously, which is where the CDC’s problem of underreporting comes in. Regarding the underreporting of COVID-19 cases, junior Hope Tran says, “There will always be those people who won’t test because they don’t want to confirm they have COVID-19 or simply just think it’s any other cold. So there are definitely an underreported amount of COVID-19 cases currently, especially now with the convenience of rapid tests and not necessarily needing to go get PCR tested.” An example of this was the results of a wastewater sample in Massachusetts. MassLive stated that “by testing for COVID-19 in the water coming from toilets, showers and other drains across Greater Boston, authorities have tracked the spread of the pandemic without relying on local residents to take a viral test themselves. In samples of wastewater taken at the Deer Island Treatment Plant in Boston Harbor, officials from the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority noticed a slight uptick in COVID in mid-March. At the same time, cases were beginning to jump across the state.” This sample showed how wastewater results are effective in predicting COVID-19 infection rates, and can make up for the lack of testing. This tells us that wastewater studies can substitute actual testing if testing is unavailable, but is it necessary?

As more and more people become vaccinated, and also infected with COVID-19, people are familiarized with the virus, and therefore feel less threatened by it. As of 2022, the mask mandate has been lifted almost everywhere, and proof of vaccination is no longer required to eat in restaurants. Because many people’s everyday lives are no longer affected by COVID-19, the need for funding of a wastewater surveillance system is questionable. Senior Shiv Malholtra says, “I think it’s probably a waste of time, and probably unnecessary. There would be some benefits, but nothing worth our tax dollars.” Freshman Tyler Morton disagrees, saying, “If so far there has been a sign of COVID-19 in it, maybe.” Wastewater studies have proven to be effective in measuring COVID-19 infection rates, but its uses extend beyond just COVID-19. In response to wastewater studies’ usefulness outside of COVID-19, Morton says, “Yes definitely, there definitely could be other diseases.” Tran adds, “I think it is somewhat late into the COVID-19 presence because now vaccines have come along and rapid tests seem somewhat unnecessary. I’m sure there are benefits to studying waste water in other issues or statistics, but it seems late for COVID-19.”

Based on the opinions of these IHS students, we are past the need for new methods of testing COVID-19, but the CDC’s NWSS has potential to protect the U.S. from the spread of diseases in the future. Regardless of whether or not it is necessary for studying COVID-19, its uses will greatly benefit the U.S. if we are at risk of another pandemic.