Alma College among first to test wastewater for COVID-19 spread

The coronavirus shows up in wastewater well before people infected show any symptoms
This black box is one of eight sampling pumps that have been installed around the campus of...
This black box is one of eight sampling pumps that have been installed around the campus of Alma College for the purpose of wastewater collection and testing.(source: Alma College)
Published: Dec. 9, 2020 at 12:39 PM EST
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ALMA, Mich. (WJRT) - Alma College is one of the first institutions in Michigan to begin testing wastewater for evidence of COVID-19 among students and staff.

The college set up eight sampling pumps outside residence halls and other buildings on campus to collect wastewater. COVID-19 shows up in human waste before people infected with the illness show any physical symptoms.

Statewide, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy are teaming up with 29 health departments, 19 laboratories and 135 other organizations to collect wastewater from 270 sites for the study.

“Anything we can do to make ourselves smarter and more knowledgeable about this virus, it’s incumbent upon us to do it,” said Alan Gatlin, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Alma College. “This will give us a more refined, or targeted, measure of how we can test for COVID-19 on campus moving forward, and keep the virus from spreading.”

The college plans to begin testing wastewater when students return for their winter term in January.

Each of the sewage eight pumps has a thin tube connected to a sewer line underneath to draw a small sample periodically. College officials will collect the samples in a sterile container and ship them to a testing location.

Administrators should get the results back within 24 hours showing whether any COVID-19 activity is detected in the wastewater. They can use that information to determine whether additional steps to mitigate the spread of the illness will be necessary.

“By collecting samples of the wastewater, we hope to be able to tell that someone had COVID-19 in their system within the past 24 hours. Then, we can conduct a concentrated testing campaign in the area they live,” Gatlin said.

He expects the college to ramp up coronavirus diagnostic testing for students and staff if COVID-19 is detected in wastewater from a specific building. Additional isolation or quarantine orders also may go into effect.

“We’ll focus on what the data is telling us and use it to inform our decision-making,” Gatlin said.

Wastewater testing is not specific enough to determine where in the building COVID-19 came from or identify any individuals who may have the illness. Alma College says it will only test wastewater for the coronavirus and not any other medical conditions or substances.

“This is another tool in our belt that we’ll use to help people stay safe on campus,” Gatlin said.

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