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Researcher: Monitoring what you flush is becoming increasingly important while monitoring COVID-19

Posted at 3:27 PM, May 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-15 19:05:03-04

MILWAUKEE — We've told you for over a year now that officials are using wastewater to monitor COVID-19 levels. What we learned Friday, is that the longer the pandemic lingers, the more important this surveillance is becoming to understanding where COVID hot-spots are in our state.

Despite key indicators, such as cases and test positivity being in the red in Milwaukee County, people in Milwaukee's Third Ward say they're moving on.

"People have been locked inside with everything shutting down for a long period of time and stuff. People just want to get out and about," said Scott LaBundy who is visiting Milwaukee from out of town.

He's not alone in that feeling.

"A lot of people are just tired of being in the house and ready to get out and enjoy they self and get back to their normal life," said Terrance Collins, who just wrapped up breakfast at a local restaurant when our crews ran into him.

According to the county's COVID-19 Surveillance Dashboard, the average number of people being tested for COVID-19 has remained rather consistent, but the number of those tests coming back positive is on the rise.

That's why it is significant that as the desire to be tested fades, people still need to use the bathroom.

"I do think it is more important as we go forward in the pandemic," said Sandra McLellan, a professor at UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences. She heads up a program that is monitoring wastewater for spikes in COVID-19 and new variants.

She said as concerns about the pandemic ebbs and flows, their data collection remains consistent.

"I think for a long-term surveillance measure, that's a measure that isn't susceptible to, kind of these dynamics of people wanting to get tested, they're tired of it, they're more concerned," McLellan said.

She said they are fine-tuning their process, which is why some communities have stopped collecting data.

"We can look at what we've done the last two years and figure out where there's really been hot-spots, make sure we're covering those, and then use fewer plants as surveillance sites and do them more often," said McLellan.

Despite fewer collection sites, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services says more than 40% of the state's population is monitored through wastewater collections.

Data from wastewater monitoring programs around the area are available here.

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