UWM researchers using your waste to detect COVID-19

Posted at 10:16 PM, Apr 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-14 23:16:50-04

MILWAUKEE — Local researchers are monitoring wastewater for COVID-19. It’s another way to track the disease's spread in the community along with regular testing.

Two labs in Wisconsin are performing the tests for COVID-19 in the sewage water, one right here in Milwaukee. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's School of Freshwater Sciences, they are testing the water for Wisconsin’s largest cities.

“As people stop being tested and as these new variants enter into our communities, it’s a way to keep an eye on the entire population at once,” says Dr. Sandra McLellan, who heads up the lab at UWM.

She says the ability to detect COVID in the wastewater was discovered early on in the pandemic, and they started tracking it here in Milwaukee in the spring of 2020.

The wastewater testing has proved to be a very accurate look at the virus’ spread in the community.

"When you hear about a drop in the reported cases, you wonder, did people stop getting tested or is there really a drop?" says Dr. McLellan. "Well, the wastewater data can back that up one way or another. It can kind of serve as a tie-breaker if you’re not really sure what’s going on.”

Dr. Jonathan Meiman, a Chief Medical Officer with Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services, says the wastewater testing can be a preview of what’s ahead if there’s a surge in cases.

“By and large it tends to look like it’s generally ahead, which is one of the benefits. It can give you kind of a heads up or preview of what could be coming down the pipeline,” says Dr. Meiman.

The testing takes about 36 hours to complete and log from the time the sample arrives at UWM until it can be tested for results. The state tracks the data and reports it to the public on its website here. The lab at the School of Freshwater Sciences is now tracking the different variants of the COVID-19 virus that are circulating in Wisconsin.

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