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Water from Utah toilets helps researchers understand coronavirus

Water from Utah toilets helps researchers understand coronavirus (Photo: KUTV)
Water from Utah toilets helps researchers understand coronavirus (Photo: KUTV)
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It may seem gross, but wastewater can tell researchers a lot about the spread of coronavirus.

Researchers from University of Utah, Brigham Young University, Utah State University and the Utah Department of Environmental Quality have launched a pilot program to study wastewater from 11 different water plants across the Wasatch Front.

“We are trying to track the virus in wastewater in the state of Utah,” Jennifer Weidhaas, researcher and associate professor of environmental engineering at the U said.

Researchers collect samples from wastewater plants and extract the virus from the water.

“We can take samples from the water as it comes into the treatment plant and we can do the same test that they do up at the hospital on patients,” Weidhaas said.

It’s not new technology.

“In some cases they’ve used it to track polio in third world countries, or many Rotavirus,” she said.

But, it’s being used for the first time in Utah to help understand how the virus is spreading in different communities.

“We’ll be able to take a geographic area and we’ll be able to see how prevalent the virus is that community,” Jared Mendenhall, spokesperson for the DEQ, said.

While researchers cannot trace the infection back to specific households, the information can highlight hotspots.

“In absence of testing hundreds of thousands of people, if we can test 10 or even 15 waste water and determine how many people might be sick in a particular area, it’s a great cost savings to the state,” Weidhaas said.

“This is an example of a really big collaborative effort. The pilot program is involving researchers at BYU, Utah State and the University of Utah and 11 water plants across the Wasatch Front,” Mendenhall added.

The data can help health officials pinpoint areas that are more impacted by coronavirus.

“The hope is we’ll be able to use this data to detect and spikes or resurgence,” Mendenhall added.

The pilot program, which started in late March, will finish up research in the next week. Those findings will be shared with public health officials to help the state decide what areas may need better intervention against the virus.

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“It’s also peace of mind for people. If we can test a particular area and find that there’s not a strong signal there, it’s a good indication that there’s not very many sick people the area,” Weidhaas said.

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