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Wastewater testing project in Mayfield offers early warning of COVID-19 outbreaks to prevent spread

A wastewater testing project in Mayfield is helping pinpoint community outbreaks of COVID-19 before area residents even experience symptoms, and thus could allow for more narrowly targeted measures to prevent further spread of the disease.

The project, a partnership between Graves County Health Department, Mayfield Electric and Water Systems, Murray State University and the University of Louisville Co-Immunity Project, and the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, launched in early November. The Foundation provided funding to pay for the equipment needed to analyze the samples, as part of a $60,000 grant to the Co-Immunity Project. While early data is still sparse, the project already has identified spikes in COVID ahead of the traditional clinical and testing models.

Dr. Bikram Subedi extracts the virus from wastewater in his chemistry lab at Murray State University. (Photo provided)

“The project is essentially an early warning system that gives health officials and policymakers the information they need to focus additional testing and treatment where there are specific outbreaks, thus helping avoid the need for more county-wide or statewide shutdowns,” said Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. “Wastewater testing can help more of us get back to normal more quickly by identifying where outbreaks are most prevalent over time.”

Under the program in Graves County, samples are being taken from the wastewater treatment plant in Mayfield. MSU chemistry and biology labs, led by Assistant Professor Dr. Bikram Subedi and Associate Professor Dr. Gary ZeRuth, respectively, then analyze the samples to count copies of the SARS-CoV-2 virus RNA and look for changes.

Dr. Subedi explained: “SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has been shown to be shed into the wastewater from infected persons regardless of whether they exhibit symptoms. Detection and measurement of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in wastewater therefore serves as a comprehensive, non-invasive, near real-time, and cost-effective approach to monitoring COVID 19 infection within communities that is not dependent on individuals submitting to testing. Trends in SARS CoV-2 RNA levels found in wastewater can be used as an early warning of virus outbreaks within the community and inform administrators executing public health interventions.”

“This is similar to the practice of having canaries in a coal mine. It shows us that there is an infection in our community before symptoms present themselves in individuals,” said Graves County Health Department Director Noel Coplen.

Wastewater-based epidemiology has been used for many years to detect diseases in communities, but this is the first time it has been used in Western Kentucky to detect COVID-19 spikes.

“It’s a non-traditional partnership and we are proud to have the opportunity to do our part to slow the spread of COVID in our community,” said Marty Ivy, general superintendent at Mayfield Electric and Water Systems.

“The Co-Immunity Project wastewater testing program also has been working in Louisville and Northern Kentucky to monitor sewage for early indications of COVID-19 trends to help mitigate spread of the disease,” said Dr. Ted Smith, director of the Center for Healthy Air, Water and Soil at the University of Louisville Envirome Institute, and co-investigator of the Co-Immunity Project. “Our work has found that levels of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater are consistently correlated with infection levels in a community. We now have in place a lab at MSU that can continue this work and help the local health department better assess levels of community infection and determine appropriate interventions.”

Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky

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