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OHA, OSU using sewage to track COVID-19

The Oregon Health Authority and Oregon State University are testing wastewater for novel coronavirus particles as a way to monitor individual cities — including Medford and Ashland — for the virus’s spread.

Health officials call the project a potential “early warning signal” for increased local spread of the illness.

The study, funded with $1.2 million from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, began in mid-September and will continue for 30 months. Weekly samples are collected from wastewater treatment plants and sent to OSU for testing, according to Tyler Radniecki, OSU associate professor of environmental engineering.

“They do all the filtering, and then they mail us the filters that contain the solid particles, the virus particles, and then we extract that here on campus,” Radniecki said, adding the samples are stabilized with a chemical agent as a precaution for the scientists. “This project could not be done without the collaboration of these utilities in the cities. For the most part, the support has been overwhelming from the various cities across the state.”

Radniecki and OSU bioengineering professor Christine Kelly are heading up the study, collaborating with OHA. Participating plants have been sending the filters for testing since mid-September. Particles of the virus are shed in human feces in both symptomatic and asymptomatic cases.

An online dashboard on the OHA website shows results from week to week. Tests detected viral samples the weeks of Oct. 4 and 11 in Medford, and on Oct. 11 for Ashland, the data show. Sample results for those cities for the week of Oct. 18 were not yet available. Klamath Falls is also participating, and samples from the weeks of Oct. 4 and 11 showed the virus was present in sewage samples. Criteria for participating included communities outside of the Portland metropolitan area with populations of more than 6,000 people.

“It’s early on still, but what we’re finding is that the virus is pretty widespread in the state of Oregon,” Radniecki said. “Which perhaps isn’t extremely surprising, given what we know about the virus, but we know we can detect it.”

Over time, scientists hope to build an understanding of whether the data from the study can be used to provide a “relative scale” of case severity in individual cities, Radniecki said.

“We’re just trying to get some understanding of when we see a signal in the wastewater, what does that mean in terms of number of infections?” he said.

OHA hopes the information will lead to a better understanding of where the virus is circulating in the state.

“This is another tool state, regional and public health can use in a response to help identify and contain the spread of the virus in our communities,” OHA communications officer Delia Hernandez said in an email. “Right now, this is emerging science, and we are working with OSU to determine how the data we gather can and should be interpreted. This will require careful study over several months.”

Radniecki said such studies could prove to be a cost-effective method of community surveillance for public health. A study focused just on Oregon State University and the city of Corvallis is also underway.

Reach Mail Tribune web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com.